Mamata Bannerjee’s official biography on the West Bengal government’s website describes her as the author of no fewer than thirty books, one of which is called ‘Slaughter of Democracy’. No prizes for guessing who the ‘slaughterer’ was in this 2006 polemic against the Left Front. Now, less than a year into a government that was elected to end what the writer Ruchir Joshi calls a “moral” crisis of governance, Ms Bannerjee’s government is showing itself to be more Left than the Left in its intolerance of dissent, with her own special blend of theatrics thrown in.
The cartoon crisis engulfing the Trinamool Congress government in West Bengal shows not only a paranoia of any criticism, but also a chillingly petty appetite to go after even the most innocuous kind of questioning. Combine that with a supine police and administrative machinery, and it adds up to what seems like the return of an FIR-raj symptomatic of the worst sides of the previous Left regime.
Consider the charges against the hapless chemistry professor from Jadavpur University who simply forwarded a cartoon: insulting the modesty of a woman (Section 509 of the IPC), defamation (Section 500 of the IPC), humiliating a woman (using Section 114 of the IPC) and causing offence using a computer under Section 66 A (b) of the vaguely-worded IT Act. Even tinpot dictatorships these days take some care to at least put some semblance of camouflage on blatantly political charges.
In this case though, if you take the line of reasoning adopted by the West Bengal police to its logical conclusion, the implication is that any critique of a woman-chief minister could conceivably be interpreted as a crime against womanhood itself! You couldn’t invent such political satire if you wanted to.
The hope of paribartan that Mamata Banerjee had symbolised in May 2011 has all but dissipated in her eleven months in Writer’s building. Shrillness and a strange kind of self-enclosed worldview seem to have taken over her government, one where every problem is a stage-managed one, every question a conspiracy.
A year ago, Mamata Bannerjee’s triumphal victory march in Kolkata was powered by an inexorable upsurge of discontent but also cheered by the city’s intellectual classes. Now those same classes who cheered so lustily from the sidelines already seem to be turning away, with the chief minister seemingly bent on proving her worst critics right. Even at the height of her triumph, the question was whispered: does Mamata Bannerjee have a vision beyond slaying the Left? Now those whispers are turning into a crescendo.
In May 2011, there was the reassurance of an impressive phalanx of technocrats who provided the sheen of intellectual respectability. A year later, there is little evidence of any serious policy direction outside of the usual populism. In March 2011, West Bengal’s outstanding liabilities stood at 1.87 lakh crore. In March 2012, the debt had increased to over 2 lakh crore, and it is estimated to only go up further by next year.
West Bengal’s debt-gross state domestic product ratio is among the highest in the country and turning these depressing finances around was a key part of the Trinamul’s election promises. Not surprisingly, though, there was little clapping from the sidelines when the state finance minister, a former director general of FICCI, presented his government’s budget last month, hemmed in as he was by the populist impulses of his party that have already cost one cabinet minister in Delhi his job.
A year may be too short a time to judge results, but long enough to see directions surely. And in Kolkata, beyond the city being painted blue because the motto of the new government is ‘the sky is the limit, as one minister puts it; and wafting folk music on traffic junctions, there seems little evidence of a clear destination. For Mamata Bannerjee, the transition from a feisty street-fighter to an administrator is clearly proving to be a bumpy ride.
A government that passes edicts on which newspapers the public should read (including those headed by party-men, naturally) and a chief minister that thought nothing of storming a police-station in her own capital to rescue two party-men accused of rioting and arson is not a government that is adrift, but one that seems bent on self-destructing.