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Tuesday 8 November 2011

West Bengal's new battle: Mamata Banerjee must get her prorities right

West Bengal's new battle: Mamata Banerjee must get her prorities right

Mamata Banerjee
Change, said Heraclitus, is the only constant. But over 34 long years in West Bengal, the Left proved many wise men wrong. Mind you, Bengal did change under Left rule - but after the early euphoria of land reforms, mostly for the worse.

The May 2011 verdict was as much against lost opportunities of development, job, enterprise, capital, you-name-it, as it was against a systemic takeover of the administration and basic democratic rights by the party. So when Bengal finally voted Mamata Banerjeein, only one emotion overrode relief: hope for a turnaround.

Six months on, sample this. "I am concentrating on industry. Regarding infant death, if you still have some queries, ask my health secretary. Please don't disturb me," chief minister Mamata Banerjee, who holds the health portfolio, told reporters on the death of 47 babies in a week in three hospitals in Kolkata, Burdwan and Murshidabad.

Two days later, a newborn in Murshidabad died on Wednesday when the doctor used carbolic acid instead of an antiseptic. The CM's response hasn't changed since a similar crisis in July: the Left is to blame for the pathetic medical infrastructure in the state.

But inertia is no excuse, given the expectations. Last month, my elderly aunt, having seen many a cynical autumn, dismissed my indifference towards the same festive crowds with an unusual prod: "Are you sure you want to miss this [Durga] pujo - the first after poribarton?" It struck me that I was in kindergarten when the Left Front came to power; that not much of my memory dates back beyond 1977.

Could this be the reason why I, belonging to the first of many so-called Left generations, found pujo and much of Bengal the same all these years?

Potholes, Pujo, 'Liberation' 

The potholes, the traffic jams, the rickety, smoke-spewing buses were all in place. So were the noisy, tireless, pandal-hoppers. Just when I was wondering if Rabindrasangeet wafting from select traffic signals was the only change I would encounter in Kolkata, Mamatadi held out a few surprises.

The parks in Kolkata have been reclaimed for the bhadrolok. Families now enjoy evening walks without being intimidated by drug addicts or hoodlums. Pity, the municipal workers lock the premises soon after sundown; the move, I was assured, has nothing to do with moral policing. There are just too many homeless in the city.

Pujo too was different. It is a multi-crore industry, and the organisers - clubs, big and small - were mostly controlled by the Left. This year, several "Left pujos" had Trinamool challengers. Elsewhere, the control over organising committees changed hands.

While scores of pujos organised by Left workers shrunk in scope, those under Trinamool Congress (TMC) patronage saw a 300-700% increase in their budgets.

The pujo backed by Mamata aide and Bengal industry minister Partha Chatterjee used to be a modest neighbourhood affair until recently. This time, the idols were brass-and-mahogany, and everything else was as lavish.

Even during the festive season, a highly polarised local media had played up reports of sporadic political violence. But to her credit, Mamata had sent out a message for peace immediately after assuming office.

A veteran IPS officer recalls the bloodshed across the state after the end of the long, almost uninterrupted Congress rule in the late 1970s. "From that experience, we were prepared for another bloody transition. But by and large, Mamata has succeeded in keeping TMC workers on leash."

Left leaders play victim in public. In private, many of them sound relieved. "We expected much worse. Whatever [violence] is happening has a pattern. In areas where we did not allow any opposition, our cadres are facing the backlash. Elsewhere, they [TMC] are giving us some space," says a leader.

But the command structure of TMC is far from robust and too many musclemen who earlier served the Left interests have simply switched sides. A good number of "renegade" communists have joined in too.

On the margins of politics, the newly "empowered" are struggling to handle their "liberation". On the first day of this pujo, the officer-in-charge of south Kolkata's Garfa police station asked a few TMC-affiliated auto-rickshaw drivers to stop drinking in public (actually the reasonable man suggested that they move their party from the main road to a nearby alley). He spent the pujo in hospital with several fractured bones.

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