Monday, May 30, 2016

West Bengal "Poriborton": Be the change

To make her place permanent in the hearts of Bengalis—the Didi for all times to come—‘poriborton’, like charity must begin from within.

Article first published in +Mint Click here to read

At his first rally in Kolkata—in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha election, Narendra Modi called for Dada (Pranab Mukherjee) in Rashtrapati Bhavan, Didi (Mamata Banerjee) in West Bengal and (Narendra) Bhai in Delhi. Two years down the line, on the second anniversary of the Modi government, that formulation has indeed fallen into place. And significantly, in a Congress-mukt (Congress-free) form—since Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress opted for an Ekla Chalo Re (Go-it-alone) act in the recent state assembly election.

Whether one subscribes to the theories of tacit deals in Delhi or not, the equations on the ground have subtly changed. With the odd coupling of the Left and the Congress, Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) 10% vote share has become a critical variable that Banerjee can no longer ignore. Whether it was media hype or wishful thinking that created an illusion of a late surge for the Left-Congress ‘Jot’, (alliance) it has left even the old faithful dejected about the future of any anti-TMC configuration in the state. It is entirely conceivable, a chunk of this section may well switch to BJP in 2019. Therefore, no matter how much of shadow boxing and verbal fencing Trinamool and BJP might indulge in public—one can safely expect to see more of “issue-based” support in Parliament—starting with the passing of the GST Bill among other pending legislation that had grounded NDA’s reforms agenda.

All this should augur well for the state too —as Modi-Shah cannot afford to ignore the MP count of West Bengal in doing their arithmetic for 2019. Mamata Banerjee is too sharp a politician to miss her tryst with history. Like Narendra Modi’s claims of a Vibrant Gujarat, she knows a ‘Resurgent Biswa Bangla’ can be her ticket to a Congress-mukt anti-BJP national league. Hence, she has little option but to make Unnayan (development) her equivalent of the bullet train. Bengal has decidedly changed from Red to Green—but, she knows, without visible economic progress, it could easily turn to saffron in the next three to five years.

A week is too short a time to make any prediction. But, some developments of the last seven days have left people jittery with premonitions of an encore of the last five years. Though her first interaction with the media after the results was measured and moderate, the signals thereafter, do not reflect the same maturity. To start with, she upturned the changes made by the Election Commission in the police commissariat, bringing back her favourite officer—perhaps, as a message to the bureaucracy that the boss is back. There was not even a hint of apology either for the pre-poll violence or the scams that were caught on camera. In fact, she went a step further to declare West Bengal as a “corruption free state”. As if to cock a snook at her opponents and detractors—she has many of the accused caught in sting operation—like Firad Hakim of Kolkata’s “mini-Pakistan” fame—back in the cabinet. One has also not seen any discernible attempt to check post-poll attacks on perceived ‘traitors’—with the customary trading of charges between opposing camps.

Banerjee’s biggest challenge is the lack of intellectual bandwidth in her team. There is no point in denying that the Bengal cadre of bureaucracy is shallow on talent. The brighter officers of Bengali origin—who have either moved to the Centre or belong to other state cadres are loathe to come back to Kolkata—just as many private sector professionals thriving in the greener pastures in Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru. Therefore, Mamata is handicapped by not having at her disposal a bunch of savvy officers like Narendra Modi had in Gujarat or a Nitish Kumar has been able to hand-pick from the formidable Bihar bench in the IAS. Among her ministerial colleagues—other than Amit Mitra, who has maintained a low profile compared to his Ficci days—Banerjee does not have the equivalent of Modi’s ‘Navaratna’—to implement her vision. There are a few with proven track record in administration—like Subrata Mukherjee—but their role has been restricted so far. In her second term—Mamata Banerjee cannot rely just on her earthy, commonsense wisdom. She needs experts to advise her, for which she has to give up micro-management and give them space and freedom to operate.

What Bengal needs are some quick wins. Land acquisition—though one can say with reasonable certainty Banerjee will crack it in this term—and industry will not happen overnight. Besides, investors do not put money on the ground till they develop confidence in the long-term outlook (think Bihar, where industrialization has still not taken off despite this being Nitish Kumar’s third term). The solution, therefore, is the service industry. But even that will require breakthrough thinking and a radical change in work culture. Bengal has already missed the bus of the generic IT outsourcing boom, where Bengaluru, Gurgaon and Chennai have secured huge leads. Trying to enter late into the party will make it at best a distant also-ran. The way to go would be to build specialized competencies around select industries like food processing and floriculture in which the state has a natural advantage and provide a good complementary fit for service ancillaries.

But, salvation may lie in returning to the traditional Bengali knowledge-based competencies in education, medicine (healthcare), scientific research, cinema and aesthetics (design). Bengal is the only state that spans the Himalayas to the sea—with stretches of river, forests and archaeological treasures like Bishnupur and Murshidabad in between. With proper infrastructure, it can easily repeat Kerala’s tourism act. Smartly marketed, the Sunderbans can any day give the backwaters a run for its money. For a start, Banerjee may be able to woo back talent from the diaspora with her sisterly (didi) charm, which could be much more productive than forays to Singapore, London and the US for the elusive and illusory foreign direct investment.

In September, Banerjee will be travelling to Rome to attend the canonization of Mother Teresa. There is one lesson, perhaps, she can take from the late Albanian nun soon to be anointed saint. To make her place permanent in the hearts of Bengalis—the Didi for all times to come—poriborton, like charity must begin from within. TOPICS: MAMATA BANERJEEWEST BENGALCONGRESSTRINAMOOL CONGRESSASSEMBLY ELECTIONS

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

When Left turns Right

Modi and BJP aren't going away in a hurry

Article first published in +Swarajya click here to read

Since the state assembly results were out last Thursday (May 19th) – two sets of views are dominating the op-ed space in print. The first – media pundits across board are finding merit in Amit Shah – Narendra Modi’s strategy for creeping expansion of BJP’s footprint to hitherto unconquered geographies. The second lot — are a series of very convoluted justification of how they were so widely off the mark in their prediction of the West Bengal results. From – a position of taking the outcome for granted – as a cakewalk for Mamata – their hopes had soared for the Left-Congress “Jot” (alliance) gathering traction as the polls progressed. 

The first is more interesting. It took just one election – in which BJP won a single state and in the others managed to only increase its vote share – to change the perspective of the media worthies. Simultaneously, those who till recently were all praise for the new improved Rahul Gandhi 2.0 – post his mysterious sabbatical of last summer – sank into a crisis of confidence apprehensive of India, indeed, becoming #CongressMuktBharat if Rahul were to take full-time charge of the party.

What’s common between the two thesis is – after grudgingly swallowing the outcome – the commentators have changed tack and are freely dispensing advice to both Modi and Mamata on how to make the most of a good verdict. One would have thought by now they would know that these two self made leaders – seldom listen to the counsel of others. But, guess, they feel it is worth a try – if for nothing else - to build bridges and mend fences as neither Modi nor Mamata are likely to go away in a hurry.

What all this still doesn’t explain though – is the abrupt jettisoning of media’s darling — Rahul Gandhi, like the proverbial baby with the bathwater. Papers and channels that were vehemently opposed to Modi and BJP are writing first drafts of obituaries anticipating the imminent decimiation of the grand-old party (in its current form). While some are joining the chorus of “Priyanka lao, Congress Bachao” — others are decrying the formula of “more dynasty” to make up for the talent-deficit in the current generation of the family. The larger eco-system created by the Congress — seem to be more concerned about the future of Congress than, perhaps, Congressmen themselves.

No matter what the political soothsayers have to say about the proverbial phoenix rising from the ashes etc — in their heart they know Congress has not only lost its capacity to be the party in power at the centre but its viability as an alliance partner is also under question. Its often cited that BJP itself had been reduced to a party of two members in Parliament and made a determined comeback. Why can’t Congress repeat such an act ? Or for that matter — the return of Lalu’s RJD in #Bihar. 

The inherent fallacy in this wishful thinking is easy to explain. BJPs turn-around was achieved not by any one man or family — it had the entire organisation of the party and the RSS working for its revival. Lalu’s rehabilitation was achieved by the unstinted backing of his community — caste base, who felt one of their own had been victimised — in the power war of the political elite. Unfortunately, Rahul Gandhi evokes no such emotional surplus among Congress’ core constituents. 

Thus the prospects of BJP occupying the central space vacated by the Congress and the motley crowd of regional warlords jostling against it — is not a scenario that excites the media mandarins. But, these elections have brought home a few more sharp realisations that are even more unsettling for the Congress nurtured ecosystem — 
  1. Even without winning elections BJP can emerge as a force to reckon with nationally by sheer increase in Vote Share; 
  2. If the new trend of the electorate voting decisively in state elections based on local issues and sub-national lines, it is likely they will vote in the Lok Sabha elections keeping the larger national picture in mind;
  3. Narendra Modi still remains the most popular and credible National Leader. Therefore, no matter which way some of the forthcoming state polls (Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan etc) might go — and people may yet trust Modi with another term as Prime Minister.
So, it is not the Congress or Rahul Gandhi but Narendra Modi and BJP who can’t be written off in a hurry.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Mamata has created history; now it is her chance to leave a mark on history

Reboot "Poriborton": Mamata Banerjee V 2.0

Article First Published in +ABPLIVE Click here to read

Mamata Banerjee has surprised supporters and confounded opponents and critics alike by her historic victory. Though this writer could legitimately claim an “I told you so” moment — truth be told even he had a twinkling of doubt as the counting-day approached. Planted leaks in the guise of “Satta Bazaar” quotes and alleged Government Intelligence inputs created an air of uncertainty. Exit Polls, barring one, made guarded predictions of a Trinamool win by a slender margin. Mamata Banerjee herself went into a contemplative retreat and the usually vocal members of her party appeared to be on recess.

Finally, when Mamata emerged from the inner sanctum of her Kalighat home yesterday — she was a picture of composure that one has not often seen in the past. She addressed the media with moderation and maturity that would well behove an incumbent Prime Minister’s “victory speech” — of course, peppered with a few humble howlers like “Bengal is a CORRUPTION FREE state”. Clearly, a new, refreshed Mamata Banerjee 2.0 is all set for a re-launch.

Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal and head of the Trinamool Congress (TMC), greets party activists near her residence in Kolkata on May 19, 2016. PIC/AFP.
Mamata Banerjee’s ambition cannot — and should not — be limited to being a second or multi-term Chief Minister of West Bengal. She is also not cut in the mold of a Jayalalitha or Naveen Patnaik — content to play kingmaker while being the emperor (or empress) in their far corner of the world. Having come a long way from being a street-fighter — she is more in the league of a Nitish, Mulayam, Lalu (in which, Kejriwal is a wannabe gatecrasher). So to be ready for the “Finals” in 2019 — in which, Nitish already has a head start — she needs to get cracking immediately.

Mamata Banerjee’s first challenge will be to rein in the euphoria of her party cadres over this epic victory — which even they could not have imagined. Simultaneously, the wings of the local Trinamool satraps (especially those — who were becoming a liability) have to be clipped early and they have to be made to understand the electorate has voted for Mamata Banerjee in all 284 constituencies and not for any or even the strongest and most popular among them. At this juncture, Mamata can scarcely afford a descent like Bihar’s slow but stead slide back to “jungle-raj” — which will put her in a handicap even before the race starts.

But, the most important item on her agenda has to be the Economy — which holds the key for much that ails West Bengal today. Job creation can no longer be outsourced to “syndicates”. Banking should be given back to Bankers from chit-fund barons and pada “Dadas” relieved of their responsibility for “Tax” (‘Tola’) collection.

Calcutta and Bengal first grew as a trading centre. The descendants of Jagat Seth know enough about Commerce — to have to rely on nefarious cross-border operators. Bengal’s famous Gobinda-Bhog Rice should get precedence over illegal Poppy cultivation in Malda.

Above all, the lumpen proletariat she inherited from the Left regime must realize the real “money-machines” are industry and not potable fake currency printing presses. Now, with a stronger than ever mandate it is time for her to “bite the bullet” on land acquisition policy. But, if Mamata choses to wait till 2019, Bengal would once again have missed the bus. On the other hand, a few big quick wins can change mood of the state and she can ride the wave of optimism to garner a large cache of Lok Sabha seats — to make her a formidable stakeholder in any national political formulation.

Prior to that — what has to be set right is the infamous “work culture” of Bengal. Before, industry finds its new roots — the service industry can get a boost. Gujarat is not just — Sanand. Ahmedabad today is a premier Health-care destination, as indeed Pune, Bangalore and Manipal are for education. The concept of “quality” has to be re-injected into the Bengali DNA — that must be all pervasive from construction of fly-overs to running efficient hospitals, schools and colleges.

To move to Delhi, Mamata Banerjee will need to put her house in order at the state level. An Abhishek cannot be an Akhilesh — at least as yet. She would do well to empower colleagues with proven track-record like Subrata Mukherjee in the government — while letting Mukul Roy manage the party, which would also provide a good check and balance. Will she?

Mamata Banerjee is too canny a politician not to realize she is destined to play a much bigger role in national politics. And, she is not the kind to ruin her prospects by playing the wrong cards.
In these elections, she has created history and now it is her chance to leave a mark in history.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

A socially savvy Left and Calcutta Biriyani

A socially savvy new Left 

One of the most distinctive and endearing features of elections in Bengal used to be pol­itical graffiti. Wit and satire poured over the walls in the form of limericks, cartoons and caricature. It was acerbic wit and caustic creativity at its sharpest. Party workers painted walls and drew posters on old newspapers. Loudspeakers belted out parodies and spoofs. But, not any more—flex-printed giant hoardings have replaced artwork stuck to palm leaf billboards on bamboo polls. Party anthems are now more sophisticated—composed and sung by professional artists, they play at traffic junctions and go viral on you-tube.

Although late to join the party, social media has changed the paradigm of electioneering in Bengal and become the new tool of buzz creation. Memes of politicians have pushed over cartoons. Whatsapp, Facebook and Twitter are the virtual platforms for political sparring in place of the traditional para-r rock adda. Of course, the advantage of social media is that it lends itself to crowdsourcing, not to mention that it is dynamic. With elections held in five or six phases stretched over nearly two months, it helps to maintain momentum and currency by continuously updating messages. It also allows for timely course corrections.

On a side note, it was interesting to note how the Left got off to a better start here than TMC, for whom Twitter was mainly a weapon against the Delhi-based English media.

Tiffin time 

The Boxwallahs took with them not only the industries of Bengal but also Calcutta’s finest restaurants. While other metros are in the throes of a gastronomic tsunami, Calcutta scores in street food. A lunch-time walk thr­ough any of the major office areas (it is still too British to have a downtown) of Dalhousie, High Court, Camac Street and Theatre Road can be a virtual feast. First, there is the traditional Bengali lunch from maach-bhaat (fish curry rice) to omelettes, khichudi and ghugni. Then come the fish fry, mutton chops and cutlets. In winters the favourite is “ishtew”—an Anglo-Indian derivative of the Irish stew. Chowmien and biriyani have long been a steady presence along with the patented kathi rolls. But now, frontiers are being crossed with litti-chokha, chole bhature, dosa and pav bhaji.

The high-end culinary explosion in other cities happened by migration of white-collared populations. Expats have added to the food scene there. With economic power shifting to those cities—people have greater exposure to the global trends. Calcutta, on other hand, had the influx of workers from the neighbouring states in eastern India, who have added variety at the base of the pyramid, as it were.

Bengali “Kaal-char Shal-char” 

May 8th: Tagore’s birth anniversary celebrations have assumed the proportion of a festival under the current political regime. Earlier, a few weeks before Satyajit Ray’s birth anniversary, it upturned the name of the road adjoining his apartment to ‘Satyajit Ray Dharani’, lighting up pole kiosks with Ray’s movie posters.

Yet, music and cinema are two fields where Bengal has made a comeback. Digital technology has brought down the cost of movie-making (the total outlay on a Bengali film is less than the budget of an ‘item number’ in Bollywood) and multiplexes have made distribution easy, allowing talented young directors to experiment with more contemporary themes.

Meanwhile, with Vishwabharati’s monopoly on Tagore’s works gone, there is more experimentation with his songs—something that would have got legends like the late Debabrata Biswas into trouble. With that has come the rise of Bangla Rock and Jeeban Mukhi gaan (New Age songs) breaking the century-old stranglehold of cliched Rabindra Sangeet renditions.

Modern Bengali cinema, however, steers clear of politics. That still remains the domain of theatre. And the Group Theatre movement is still alive though not kicking. Penury ­ensures it is surviving purely on passion and commitment and shoestring budgets. Bengali theatre is unable to attract the kind of well-heeled ­audience that alternative theatre gets in Bombay, Bangalore, and Delhi. The Academy of Fine Arts, near Victoria Memorial—that long preceded Prithvi and NCPA in Mumbai or Kamani and IHC in Delhi—is in poor shape. The state of other public auditoriums is as pathetic and the single-screen halls are languishing.

The theatre fraternity had openly come out in support of Poriborton. Now they are a disillusioned lot. In future, the plays of Badal Sircar will probably be watched more in translations outside Bengal than in Calcutta.

Last Month 

Calcutta Biriyani—arguably the best—is a favourite of political ­workers. Last month, there was a long queue at the Royal India Hotel in Chitpore, as they were packing biriyani boxes for local party offices.

Article first published in +OutlookMagazine Click on this to read