Saturday, December 31, 2011

Lollipops won't pacify Mamata

By Swapan Dasgupta
The failure of the Congress-led UPA Government to negotiate the passage of the Lokpal Bill in the Rajya Sabha has been blamed on an obstructive BJP. Such an assessment is needlessly flattering to the BJP which found itself out of sorts in the Lok Sabha but managed to recover its composure in the Upper House. The question therefore arises: what did the BJP do right in the Rajya Sabha what it didn’t do in the Lower House?

The difference does not merely lie in the behaviour of the SP and BSP which obliged the Government in the Lok Sabha but demonstrated greater independence in the Rajya Sabha. The Government was far more bothered by the obstreperous conduct of its ally Trinamool Congress that wanted to press its amendments in the Rajya Sabha. The TMC managed to secure endorsements from all the Opposition parties. And this meant that the Government was bound to lose on the floor of the House had the vote actually been taken.

This was the third time in rapid succession that the TMC had scuttled the Government’s initiatives. It negated the Teesta Waters Treaty that Manmohan Singh wanted to sign during his visit to Bangladesh. The TMC chief Mamata Banerjee put her foot down on the ground that she had not been properly consulted. This embarrassment was followed by Mamata’s unbudging veto of the decision to allow foreign direct investment in multi-brand retailing. The TMC was concerned about the impact foreign investment would have on the millions of petty retailers who have few other means of sustainable livelihood in the state. And now there is Mamata’s unrelenting opposition to the Lokayukta proposals that have a direct bearing on how the state government fights corruption.

Mamata has been painted by the Government as a difficult customer and an incorrigible populist who is unmindful of larger national concerns. It is being whispered that intra-Bengali rivalries have prevented Mamata from obliging the otherwise obliging Pranab Mukherjee who has a reputation of being a crafty consensus builder.

Is Mamata as bad as she is made out to be by the Government’s spin doctors? That she is mercurial, pugnacious and prone to flying off the handle are well known. In fact, it is precisely these attributes that were well appreciated by the people of Bengal. You had to be something a little out of the ordinary to persevere for three decades—through many ups and downs—in the fight against a well-entrenched and ruthless Left Front.

Yet, I think the Congress has grievously miscalculated by imagining that Mamata is merely a spoilt child who can best be placated by doling out lollipops in the form of Central grants to her. Yes, Mamata does like the lollipops and is not averse to accepting freebies and sops. But, at the same time, like the mercurial J. Jayalalithaa of Tamil Nadu, her tantrums are not born out of impulsiveness alone. There is a great deal of calculation behind each of Mamata’s moves. It is these calculations that the Government has failed to understand when they view her as a petulant child.

The most important of Mamata’s objectives is her quest to establish a regional space for herself and her party. The TMC was born out of Mamata’s revolt against the High Command culture of the Congress. She could not countenance the fact that despite being the united Congress’ main mass leader in West Bengal she was being constantly stymied by rivals whose only claim to fame is that they had better connections in Delhi. Having established herself as the main anti-Left party in West Bengal and having overshadowed the Congress, her main thrust now is to transform a regional party into a party that epitomises West Bengal. Despite operating under the discipline of the Politburo, Jyoti Basu succeeded in positioning himself as the great Bengal consensus. Now Mamata wants to fill the void by taking up some of those issues.

Till the United Front Governments of H.D. Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral gave the CPI(M) a stake at the Centre, the Reds in West Bengal had fought long and hard to rectify the imbalances in Centre-State relations. Fulminations against a discriminatory Centre formed an important part and parcel of the Left’s armoury.

Mamata’s battles should be rightly seen as an aspect of the battle to rectify federal distortions in the polity. In the past few years, Narendra Modi had fought these battles. But Modi was thwarted by both a political and image problem. Being in the BJP he did not have the requisite strategic clout to influence decision-making in the UPA—a problem that has plagued Nitish Kumar and Naveen Patnaik as well. In addition, the baggage of the 2002 riots made Modi a contentious figure and the UPA exploited this cynically.

With a total of 23 MPs in both Houses and representation in the Cabinet, Mamata has taken the battle inside the government where it is heard loud and clear. She has consciously abjured all patronage—she has not claimed a governership, any ambassadorships or quango jobs for her favourites—to focus single-mindedly on the principle that West Bengal must be consulted and its opinions taken on board on all matters that touch West Bengal, including foreign policy. She has contested the notion of an exclusive Central prerogative.

Mamata has initiated a principled battle for federalism. Other Chief Ministers could do well to emulate her.

Sunday Pioneer, January 1, 2012

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