Mamata Banerjee: What, Me Worry?

AT 1:15 pm on 8 April, Mamata Banerjee arrived in her Hyundai Santro at the Directorate of Land Records & Surveys in South Kolkata’s Alipore area. She would have been pleased, it appeared, if the car had been even smaller, like a Nano, the cheapest Indian car. After all, the West Bengal Chief Minister’s efforts to sustain an image of austerity are legion. She emerged from the car in an inexpensive white sari and bathroom slippers, as adoring crowds craned their necks to get a glimpse of the diminutive leader, and police and senior Trinamool Congress (TMC) colleagues struggled to keep pace with the 61-year-old who darted into the government office to file her nomination papers to contest South Kolkata’s Bhabanipur Assembly seat, from where she had won a bypoll by a landslide five years ago.

Wait. Has she lost the spring in her step? Has her aggression mellowed a bit? Does her smile have a perfunctory air? Has she let herself be swayed by talk that she would win but with a reduced margin? Or that the CPM-Congress tie-up could give her a tough fight for Muslim votes, her core constituency? Or is she rattled by a swift change in perception in the past five months about her invincibility? Is she losing sleep over allegations of graft, links of party leaders with mafia groups and the media outcry? Or is she upset about not meeting numerous promises, including the return of land to Singur’s farmers who had backed her in a massive agitation in 2008 to get Tata Motors to shift its Nano car factory out of West Bengal?

“No comment,” she replied, to a question whether corruption would be a major factor in this election, as she walked back to her silver-coloured, unadorned car with the number plate ‘WB02 AD 5555’, after filing the papers. Her government has been hurtling from one scam to another. The Trinamool Congress’ widely publicised poll catchphrase, ‘Shototar protik’ (symbol of honesty), has a touch of irony to it: several of its leaders are reportedly involved in the Rs 2,460 crore Saradha ponzi scheme, run by a conglomeration of 200 companies, which offered lucrative schemes to raise hundreds of crores from 1.7 million depositors before it collapsed in April 2013. Saradha’s annual collections had risen rapidly when Mamata Banerjee was Chief Minister. The group had also spent crores of rupees on cycles and ambulances that she distributed in rural Bengal, especially in tribal areas such as Jangalmahal and Muslim-dominated pockets like Birbhum and Malda. To add to the anguish, a recent sting operation by news website Narada caught 11 TMC leaders on camera accepting bribes in return for favours to a fictitious company. “From Saradha to Narada, their record is pathetic and shameful,” says an enthusiastic Mohammed Salim, a Politburo member of the CPM, adding that Mamata “is a deeply worried person”.

A senior TMC leader, however, tells me that ‘Didi’, as she is popularly known, is only ‘fatigued’ by the long-drawn election campaign. “It is mere physical exhaustion,” he insists, “See, anti- incumbency sentiment is not strong enough to unseat her, and the rivals are opportunists; the CPM and the Congress had no reason to come together other than out of sheer desperation.” He asks not to be named because he is not authorised to speak to the media ever since a flyover on Vivekananda Road in Kolkata’s Girish Park area collapsed on 31 March, killing several people; it emerged later that the kingpins of so-called ‘supply syndicates’, which provide raw materials of dodgy quality to builders, ‘report’ to Trinamool men.

Members of the state cabinet express confidence in the party’s re-election chances too. Amit Mitra, the amiable finance minister of West Bengal, asks me to see for myself the development his party has brought about in the state.

Read the rest of this article in Open magazine.

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