MAMATA — Fighter par excellence, but failing Bengal on growth front


KOLKATA:  There is no Mamata if there’s no one-upmanship. West Bengal’s Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee keeps proving this time and again. The latest is a row  eruted over the schedules for return of migrant labour to West Bengal. It started with an announcement by the CM, off the cuff this week, that she would arrange 105 trains for a month’s time to bring back Bengalis living in other states as migrant labour. 

In a quick retort, Union railway minister Piyush Goyal said West Bengal requires as many trains a day, to ferry back its migrant labour from other states, and that she should allow for plying of more trains. What he essentially implied was that, under Mamata, the people of Bengal continue to be in a sad plight, having had to trudge regions outside for a livelihood. 

It is the Centre that decides on the deployment of trains, which it has already started doing in a major way by running Shramik Specials for migrant labour.  Mamata Banerjee –constantly on a fighting mode with the Centre – can at best only request Delhi to do so. Her statement was seen as an attempt to appropriate credit for introduction of the special train services by the Centre to ferry migrant labour to West Bengal and other states.

India’s large contingent of migrant labour working in various states is drawn mostly from West Bengal, Bihar, Assam, Odisha and Uttar Pradesh. All these have large armies of the poor seeking work on daily wage. Migrant workers from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are largely spread over the affluent states of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Maharashtra, apart from large influx to capital New Delhi. Bengalis, Assamese and Odiyas are present in the north, west and south of India in large numbers.

West Bengal has little of job opportunities. Large numbers of industries have fled Kolkata since the 1980s due to excessive trade unionism prompted mainly by the Leftists – Communists – during the time of Jyoti Basu as chief minister. The CPI-M led left front ruled West Bengal for over 30 years at a stretch since the 1970s, and made mincemeat out of the state. Wages in the farm front too remain pretty low in states like Bengal, Odisha, Bihar and Assam also as feudalist tendencies are prominent and exploitation of the poor the worst. Youths get three times the wages in other states, and hence the mass migrations.

The presence of Kolkata as a hugely spread metropolis should in normal course have helped West Bengal to create job opportunities on a large scale, but excessive politics –now led by Mamata Banerjee and her TMC—has been to the state’s disadvantage. The long years of the Communist rule, or their presence in the state even now, has not helped farm labour get fair wages. The CPIM, the dominant party in the left front, and the CPI being a small entity, spoke for the poor and worked for the middle class known in the state as Bhadraloks, or comfortably positioned people. The educated elite led the Communists from the front, and had their own vested interests to promote.

Now-deceased Jyoti Basu, hailing from an aristocratic family and had his education in London, carried with him great charisma, and kept the causes of the poor in the state under check. A strong proletarian leader in the form of Promod Dasgupta, with a huge mass base, had however helped in the Communist government introducing land reforms, giving the poor small pieces of land (towel-size, as is often put as a joke) which however did not help the poor in the state find their feet much. The major let-down for the state, however, was the flight of industries due to aggressive trade unionism. Kolkata, till recently Calcutta, a charming city known for its down-to-earth styles, was the base for the British Raj in India till it shifted capital to Delhi in the early part of the 20thCentury.

West Bengal failed to progress also as the CPIM, and now Mamata Banerjee, played opposition politics to the hilt in New Delhi, inside Parliament, and offended the central government – the Congress in the past and the BJP now. Banerjee, hailing from modest background and continuing to live in a chawl near the famous Kali Temple, neither displayed a vision for the future nor exercised restraint in her dealings with the Centre. She started as a street fighter for the cause of the poor, despite her suave Brahminical origin, and continued her style while as a member of the Indian Parliament too – where she used to be on the springboard creating noise at every turn.

Banerjee started as a Congress activist and later formed her own party, the Trinamool Congress, in 1998, after which she functioned for a period as Union Railway Minister in the Manmohan Singh ministry. However, she hardly cared for the ministry, and corruption was at its worst during her term as greedy officials took control. Banerjee made it a point to spend more  time in Kolkata than in Delhi, to make a success out of her new party. A good thing that she did as railway minister was to give a facelift to the Howrah Railway station, cited till recently as Asia’s largest; a pride now having shifted to Futian in China – an underground network cited as the world’s second largest, with platforms spread over three floors in an underground mode, and having the size of 21 football courts.

Banerjee’s attempts to invite FDI (foreign direct investment) to West Bengal –principally from Singapore and Europe – did not succeed in view of the state’s past record of aggressive trade unionism practised by the Communists as also by the Trinamool Congress – a carbon copy of the left. Trinamool also resembles the Communists in another respect: keeping the large number of Muslim migrants from Bangladesh as its vote bank. Most of this segment have migrated from the Left to the Trinamool in recent years, and this is one principal support base that keeps Mamata Banerjee aloft as a politician in West Bengal. Reason also why she’s waging an aggressive fight against the Modi government, enthusing this segment, while failing to realize that fights will not help West Bengal get benefits from the Centre. Congress governments at the Centre ignored West Bengal because it remained a Communist bastion; now, the BJP does the same, as it is a Mamata fortress. 

Mamata, egged on by the support she enjoys in West Bengal, aimed for the PM post in Delhi, through crafting an alliance of regional parties with her at its head, but the 2019 Lok Sabha election results put paid to her ambitions. Narendra Modi returned with a thumbing majority for the BJP in Parliament, and formed ministry again. Mamata had craftily sought to keep the Congress at a distance in her attempts to unite the anti-BJP opposition, for fear that Rahul Gandhi — “much junior” to her in politics, as she used to say — would appropriate the PM chair. Instead, she took the company of the likes of Nara Chandrbabu Naidu of Andhra Pradesh, and made the try to emerge as a powerful bloc in Parliament. Chandrababu himself fell by the wayside in the 2019 polls, with his TDP being edged out of power by a crafty local politician, Jaganmohan Reddy of the YSR Congress. Currently, Banerjee is refashioning herself for the next parliament polls four years later, under the tutelage of a so-called political strategist from Bihar, Prashant Kishor. Problem however is, Kishor himself would like to be the PM, if a chance arose and is making some deft moves in Bihar, where people are “tired” of the faces of the Lalus and Nitish Kumars.

Kolkata as also rest of West Bengal bore the brunt of mass influx of people from Bangladesh — what was East Bengal since Partition in 1947 — in the course of repression by Pakistani army which faced the Mukti Bahini (freedom movement) of late Mujibur Rahman, founder leader of the new nation, with brute force in the early 1970s. In those days, the Communists laid out camps for them in the city and took them into the red fold.

Under Communist rule, Calcutta was red personified, its streets displaying red flags and its wall painted red. Mamata, on assuming power as chief minister, changed all that. Now, Kolkata is blue, a welcome relief to the eye, the colour of her Trinamool flag, and the colour that often bordered the Sari of Mamata for long years, in an open revolt against the red colour. However, the chief minister is failing to bring about economic improvements to the state as also its great city. 

Disappointed with the state of affairs in West Bengal, the educated elite Bengalis – among the finest brains in India — are increasingly shifting base to cities like New Delhi and Bengaluru, and their clout in the state keeps reducing as a result. –IHN-NN


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