New Delhi: Tomorrow at a touted grand rally in Calcutta’s Parade Ground with opposition bigwigs in attendance (minus Sonia and Rahul Gandhi and Mayawati), Mamata Bannerjee hopes to project herself as a political team player who is single-minded about dethroning Narendra Modi and thus deserving of an opportunity to succeed him. At the inauguration of her second term as chief minister, her principal guests were opposition leaders as well, although she came to power fighting every other political party in the fray, including the Congress. Sonia Gandhi and Rahul shan’t be there at the Parade Ground tomorrow also because Mamata rarely attends opposition conclaves organized by Sonia Gandhi and despatches representatives instead. The Bharatiya Janata Party cannot hope for purchase in the ego clash between Mamata and the Gandhis but, all the same, it exists. However, the BJP can still make inroads in Bengal in a quadrangular contest in the Lok Sabha poll and in future assembly elections. Aligning together is a compulsion that may have escaped Mamata Bannerjee but it looms large.

Mamata Bannerjee’s biggest handicap in the national stakes, though, is that she has not been able to market herself as a modern, reformist prime minister candidate. Pranab Mukherjee once said that his Hindi deficiency ruled him out for leading the country. In saying so, he was unconsciously belittling H. D. Deve Gowda. Mamata Bannerjee’s broken Hindi won’t come in the way of her progress to New Delhi. However, perceptions that she is pro-Muslim, anti-industry, impossibly populist, and generally regressive, when the reality may be quite something else, could impede her national rise. The extreme nature of Bengal politics, when thirty-four years of CPI-M thuggery was dramatically overcome by Mamata’s Trinamool Congress by means not entirely different, has cast her in a doubtful and edgy mould, and the chief minister has not assisted her image with her disastrous public relations.

In eight years of ruling Bengal, Mamata Bannerjee has left a definite positive mark. GDP growth rate and infrastructure investments have risen, the first especially handsomely in certain years beating the national average. Further, Bengal is one of the leaders of healthcare among states; fertility rates compare with the foremost industrialized provinces and are far superior to the national trend; it has among the largest number of open-defecation-free villages, and so forth. Its two principal ports show trade growth year after year. And yet, the debt overhang from the CPI-M years mars Bengal’s turnaround story. Debt has more than doubled indeed since, and was pegged at Rs 3.40 lakh crores by the 15th Finance Commission in July 2018. The trouble seems to be that Bengal largely is still an agricultural economy with pockets of excellent performances by micro, small and medium industries. Absence of big industry is pulling Bengal down. When the CPI-M realized the disastrous consequences of Marxist industrial policies and opened the door for the Tatas in Singur, it was Bengal’s infernal luck that Mamata seized upon it as a plank to end communist rule. Being a state with one of the highest population densities, industrialization requires government land acquisitions which inevitably become forced. A Supreme Court ruling against the Singur acquisition and Mamata’s own part in the standoff makes fresh acquisitions for industry practically impossible. Press reports speak of Bengal having a land bank but significant releases to industry have not occurred. Having perhaps come to regret the Singur campaign, Mamata cannot go back now. She has since invited industry to investor summits but they have not borne fruit. A perception that Mamata is anti-industry is no longer correct but her past has become an inseparable shadow from her present.

As complex and controversial is the perception that she is pro-Muslim and anti-Hindu. The perception has already produced a backlash in the form of a rapid growth of the Bharatiya Janata Party in Bengal. The urban Bengali middle class has never quite accepted Mamata. It found leftism intellectually satisfying while conveniently ignoring the accompanying regression in all walks of life. Ideological history is not bereft of examples of Left torchbearers and sympathizers defecting to the Right. The history of the Third Reich is full of such examples. And there the BJP hopes lies its salvation. But is Mamata Bannerjee what she is perceived to be? It is probably gross to suggest she is closer to one community than the other. It is perhaps more accurate to argue that she had taken votebank politics to an extreme but has seen the danger of it culminating in the rise of the BJP in Bengal. With Muslims constituting twenty-seven percent of the population, it is no-gain said that law-and-order issues acquire a particular salience. She overdid that in the 2017 Durga Puja preventing immersion on Muharram day till the Calcutta High Court rapped her on the knuckles. She turned one-eighty degrees last year making grants to puja celebrations despite the parlous state of the economy. Law-and-order sensitivities were, however, recently vindicated when the Supreme Court conceded apprehensions of violence resulting from an election-oriented BJP rath yatra in Bengal. Votebank politics is by no means restricted to Mamata Bannerjee or to the Congress leadership prior: to his credit, Rahul Gandhi is detached from this. But the BJP still not only practises votebank politics but is downright communal as well. The two wrongs of Mamata Bannerjee and the BJP do not make a right.

In conclusion, Mamata lacks the balance and the depth to lead the nation. In Bengal, she is something of an authoritarian. After Narendra Modi, the country deserves a permanent divorce from authoritarianism. India is far too complex, stratified and large for one-man rule. India is ready for breathtaking economic growth guided by technocrats and wealth creation and surplus are the sole means to lift the country out of grinding poverty. Unfortunately, though Mamata Bannerjee has persevered in Bengal, legacy issues, partly of her own creation, have prevented the state from reaching its potential. India has grievously suffered from experiments like demonetization and an extortionate GST. Another experimenter like Mamata Bannerjee is best avoided in New Delhi. Rating: Three out of 10.

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To be continued....