West Bengal leader's learning curve

West Bengal leader's learning curve
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the Istana last Tuesday, during an official visit to Singapore. Having consolidated power in her state people through populism and strong-arm methods, Ms Banerjee must deal with new challenges.

SINGAPORE - As a graduate student at the Delhi School of Economics in the late 1960s, Dr Amit Mitra, now the Finance and Industry Minister in India's West Bengal state, used to always carry a knife.

Maoist ideology was sweeping his home state, and influencing students even at faraway Delhi University, where Dr Mitra was known as a rare, right-of-centre student activist.

Indeed, one of his professors, Dr Manmohan Singh, once called him in to offer friendly advice that he mute his views. The climate, India's future prime minister warned, was not healthy for right-wingers. Dr Mitra, who was in Singapore last week on an investment-seeking mission for West Bengal state, has not had any need to hide his pro-business leanings for more than a quarter century.

Latterly, even in Bengal for that matter.

That is because of the charisma and grit of the woman he accompanied to Singapore, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.

Three years ago, Ms Banerjee led her Trinamool Congress party to a stunning victory in Bengal state polls, thus ending 34 years of rule by a left-wing coalition led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Her simple lifestyle was legendary. Her concern for the marginalised was palpable, and the masses responded. Her financial integrity also was beyond reproach. A senior Indian diplomat once recounted to me how Ms Banerjee, travelling overseas as a federal minister some years ago, declined the per diem the embassy presented as part of the government's sanctioned allowances, saying: "You people are taking good enough care of me. I do not need the money."

Now, having consolidated her power in the province of 90 million people through a combination of populism and strong-arm methods, new challenges are rising. A lot of it comes from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has controlled the federal government in New Delhi since May. That government is led by Mr Narendra Modi, who rose to national leadership on the strength of a development- focused agenda.

Indeed, Mr Modi won global recognition as chief minister of Gujarat after Ms Banerjee, then in opposition, hounded out the Tata Group from West Bengal, where it had planned to locate production for the Nano, the world's cheapest car. Mr Modi swiftly seized the opportunity to invite the Tatas to Gujarat through a cellphone text message, and arranged to make factory land available within days.

"There is a bad M and a good M and we have made the transition," said Mr Tata, after announcing that he was shifting the Nano factory from Ms Mamata Banerjee's Bengal to Mr Modi's Gujarat. It was a searing jibe Ms Banerjee will have to live down, and she knows it. To do so, she has to reinvent herself at age 59.

The flush of excitement that followed victory over the Marxists has run its course. The focus is shifting to Ms Banerjee's record, and many find it wanting.

Her stint in the federal government as Railways Minister is acknowledged as a disaster because of the populism she introduced. Now, her performance in the state is looking increasingly dubious too.

A university professor who circulated a cartoon lampooning her was jailed. The National Crime Records Bureau statistics published last year showed her state tops the nation in crimes against women. Ms Banerjee's hysterical response was to blame a section of the press for targeting her.

While she may be within her rights to interpret crime statistics her way - Bengal police are less reluctant to record crime, for instance, compared with counterparts in many other states - it cannot be denied that many of the biggest strong-arm experts affiliated to left rule have simply switched sides and unleashed a new wave of terror, particularly in rural Bengal.

"People's ears being cut off, eyes gouged out, rape victims being called prostitutes and honest police officers transferred... The Bengal of Mamata Banerjee looks dark and scary," The Times of India reported in January. "And she runs it like an autocrat with a clear distaste for dissent."

In today's India, it is no longer enough for a politician alone to be seen as clean. People are increasingly demanding better governance and visible improvement in living standards.

Ms Banerjee staved off the Modi challenge this time, winning 34 of the 42 parliamentary seats from West Bengal. But the BJP got a healthy share of the vote, even if it did not translate into seats in India's first-past-the-post electoral system. So, come 2019, it may be a different story in the parliamentary elections. Before that, Ms Banerjee will have to fight to retain power in her own home state.

That said, Ms Banerjee chose well to make Singapore her first overseas destination since taking charge as chief minister.

For many Indians, the island is an eye-opener to the benefits of a clean government, efficient bureaucracy and a non-doctrinaire, practical approach to policy. But many miss the point that above all this rides another quality - respect for the rule of law.

Political rapes, murders, public tantrums and whimsicality are not the ingredients for sustaining a sense of confidence.

"When they want to invest, they want to know that the investment is safe, which means stability - politically and legally," Singapore Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam told the Kolkata daily, The Telegraph, last week. "This means they don't want to invest and then the rules change. Second, there's got to be security.

"If they set up a factory or business and people are attacked, either by street violence or terrorism… they will get worried."

Mr Shanmugam was making a general point about Singaporeans investing in India, but his words have a special salience for West Bengal.

Nearly two decades ago, Mr Lalu Prasad Yadav, at the time Chief Minister of Bihar, a state neighbouring West Bengal that used to be regarded as India's worst administered province, made a similar trip to Singapore.

Enthused by what he saw, he telephoned then Finance Minister Manmohan Singh, saying that he needed federal assistance to turn Bihar into another Singapore. At the time, wags joked that if Mr Yadav was given charge of Singapore, it would take him less than a decade to turn it into another Bihar. Mr Yadav's party lost control of Bihar in 2005.

West Bengal has so much going for it. With 90 million residents, it has a population the size of Vietnam. It has better literacy rates than many big Indian provinces, and state finances that have slowly improved under Dr Mitra's hand. Kolkata is also the top metropolis in the region spanning eastern India, Nepal and Bhutan. What Ms Banerjee needs to prove is she has the breadth of vision, and commitment, to ensure that West Bengal does not turn into the Bihar of yore. Then, the investments will come.

velloor@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on August 26, 2014.
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