Thursday, June 02, 2016

Mamata Banerjee’s new term: Poriborton has to start from within

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.