By Sirshendu Panth
Kolkata, (IANS) Mamata Banerjee’s car still stops at all traffic signals, she still lives in a single-storey house in a dingy lane, and wears her trademark cotton saris and rubber slippers. But professors get arrested for circulating her cartoons and for supporting slum dwellers, she loses her cool over uncomfortable questions and sees a conspiracy if there is any criticism of her.
West Bengal’s maverick chief minister, who completed one year in office Sunday, is a study in contrast.
Emotional and instinctive, egoist and impulsive, the ‘didi’ (elder sister) of Bengal has established – within a brief period – a personality cult, far surpassing West Bengal’s colossal chief ministers Bidhan Chandra Roy and Jyoti Basu.
She is both the pole and the equator in the Trinamool Congress and the state government, where even the smallest of steps are taken only after her nod.
Ministers dare not talk to the media without her permission.
A minister gave details of a project to IANS but then panicked. “No, no, please don’t write anything. Didi will take offence. She will announce the project when she feels right. At least don’t quote me.”
However, Banerjee’s virtual one (wo)man show has also yielded dividends. She is not only the public face of the government but also the driving force.
After her sudden visits, government hospitals now look cleaner. A revamped and expanded chief minister’s office functions like a well-oiled grievance redressal unit; ministers and bureaucrats desperately try to stick to deadlines set by the chief minister to save their job and avoid public tongue lashings from Banerjee.
“She has led with a fair amount of determination to speed up development,” leading businessman Harsh Neotia, who heads the Ambuja Realty Group, told IANS.
At the same time, there is not even a whiff of corruption charge against the chief minister. Her residence still draws hundreds of people daily. She leads a simple life and is a small eater, muri (puffed rice) with telebhaja (deep fried vegetables) being her favourite.
“Her integrity is beyond doubt. She is free from corruption,” Press Council of India chairman Markandeya Katju said.
But Banerjee’s almost headmistress-like behaviour has drawn cynicism.
“There is only one post (chief minister), all others are lamp posts,” quipped Surjya Kanta Mishra, the Marxist leader of the opposition in the state assembly.
Pradesh Congress chief Pradip Bhattacharya is also critical.
“People have not seen any visible development. And she shouldn’t try to do everything herself. Rather she should distribute the workload for better governance,” Bhattacharya told IANS.
For a leader known for her long struggle – often single-handed – to unseat the formidable Communists, Banerjee even now retains the rebel tag.
She constantly battles the central government on issues like foreign equity in retail and National Counter Terrorism Centre Bill, succeeding in putting both in cold storage.
She uses her clout as the second largest partner of the ruling United Progressive Alliance to demand protection of the states’ rights and an economic package to tide over a financial crisis, even while refusing to raise taxes to mop up internal resources.
“The switching over from opposition to a ruler is not yet complete,” Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) leader Mohammad Salim told IANS.
The arrest of Jadavpur University professor Ambikesh Mahapatra for online circulation of some cartoons which the authorities considered defamatory of the chief minister was denounced by civil society and the public.
Her dealings with the media also bear out her intolerance of criticism.
In the initial days in office, Banerjee would be seen mostly giving exclusive bytes to one Bengali news channel on all important issues . So close was Banerjee to the channel that many referred to her in jest as its special correspondent.
But when the same channel aired some news critical of her government, she called it a “CPI-M agent” and asked the people not to watch it.
Similarly, the arrest of a renowned scientist Partho Sarothi Roy for taking part in protests against eviction of slum dwellers in South East Kolkata has been roundly condemned.
“There are lots of differences between the old Mamata and the chief minister Mamata,” said Asim Chattopadhay, a writer and a former Maoist.