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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 51, December 10, 2011

West Bengal: First Six Months of Mamata in Power

Monday 12 December 2011, by Barun Das Gupta

Mamata Banerjee’s firm and principled stand on FDI in retail trade made the Centre blink. The FDI proposal has not been ‘withdrawn’ but ‘kept on hold’. It was a tactical retreat by the Congress for buying time and garner necessary support in Parliament. When the Prime Minisiter telephoned her from Delhi, seeking her support for FDI, the polite but firm Chief Minister told him it was not possible for her to change her stand. “I am sorry,” she said. Earlier, importunities by Pranab Mukherjee also failed to cut ice with her.

What turn the FDI issue ultimately takes will be known in the next few days. The Prime Minisiter seems to have taken it as a prestige issue for him. The Congress will certainly try to ‘win over’ friends from other parties— including the Trinamul Congress—if voting on the issue becomes unavoidable in Parliament.

Earlier, on the issue of price hike of petrol, diesel and cooking also, Mamata took a firm stand. She made it plain that her party did not support the Centre’s decision. She also did not conceal her unhappiness at the Congress attitude to take her party for granted and take important policy decisions unilaterally, without consultation with it, though the TMC is the second biggest constitutent of the UPA. The Prime Minister was against taking back the petrol price hike. Asked why fuel prices did not fall when oil prices fell in the international market, Manmohan Singh’s curt answer was that the hike was necessary to earn revenue in order to keep the various pro-poor programmes of the government going.

However, within a very short time, petrol prices were reduced, not once but twice consecu-tively, as the international price of oil came down. The Prime Minister’s stand that oil was a revenue earner was apparently not accepted by the public sector oil companies. Whatever it is, the people did not fail to notice that the prices came down only after Mamata had made known her opposition.

The death of the Maoist leader Kishenji during operations by the security forces made one thing clear. The CPI-M during its rule repeatedly said that it wanted to deal with the Maoists ‘at the political level’ and not by relying on the police alone. In actual practice, neither former Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, nor any other Minister nor any senior CPI-M leader dared to visit the Junglemahal which was the strong base of the Maoists. The CPI-M dared not hold any meetings in the villages or organise processions. It relied on the police and CRPF and they committed atrocities on innocent villagers in the name of conducting campaigns against the Maoists. The helpless villagers were caught between the violence of the Maoists and the violence of the state.

Mamata, from the very beginning, took the political offensive to isolate the Maoists from the village people. She announced a number of development schemes: more schools and colleges, more hospitals, recruitment in the police force, ensuring that the money allotted for Centrally-sponsored schemes were not siphoned off but spent transparently. Under her instructions, Shubhendu Adhikary, a Member of Parliament and the President of the TMC Youth Congress, took it upon himself to organise a series of meetings and processions in the den of the Maoists. The policemen who were the object of fear and hatred earlier, were used to distribute food to the villagers. Slowly, the perception about the police started changing.

The people started turning up in large numbers in TMC meetings. Unlike the CPI-M rallies, people were not brought from other areas and districts in buses and trucks. As the TV pictures showed, they were common villagers, coming in droves and on foot, emerging from mud houses and forests and turning up at the meetings. This meant two things: first, that the people had overcome the fear of the Maoists, and secondly, the Maoists were getting isolated from the people. Their terror tactics were not working. The people were getting over the fear psychosis. The Trinamul Congress leadership was showing how to deal with the Maoists politically.

This enabled the police to do something they had failed to do during the CPI-M rule. People were now coming forward to tell them about the movement of the Maoist leaders and cadres. Kishenji had escaped from the police dragnet many times in the past because the people would warn him of the approaching police parties. In the changed situation, they started helping the security forces. In the case of Kishenji, the police started getting reliable and precise information about his every movement. Ultimately this proved to be his undoing. The police were raiding specific areas on the basis of specific information.

IT is in the backdrop of all these that the bypoll to the South Kolkata Lok Sabha constituency took place. The result showed that the TMC candidate, Subrata Bakshi, had increased his victory margin over Mamata’s in April by over ten thousand votes. The TMC’s poll percentage also went up by seven per cent. But the defeated CPI-M refused to look at these figures. They highlighted two facts. One, that their poll percentage had also increased by three per cent. Two, that in three out of 1902 polling booths, the CPI-M had pollled more votes than the TMC—in one booth just one more vote!

But the CPI-M leaders unleashed a propa-ganda as if they had won a moral victory, if not an electoral victory. Sitaram Yechury sent a congratulatory message to his party candidate, Ritabrata Bhattacharjee, for his brilliant perfor-mance, forgetting that he had been trounced by a margin of 2,30,000 votes. Former CPI-M minister Abdur Rezzak Mollah said congratu-lating a defeated candidate exposed the party’s political bankruptcy.

Indeed, the CPI-M has been put on the defensive. In the fuel price hike issue, in the FDI issue, on the Teesta river water sharing issue, Mamata has taken the stand that the Left normally takes. She is taking the wind out of the CPI-M sail. The CPI-M is at a loss to know how to checkmate her. When she opposed the fuel price hike, the CPI-M said she was ‘cheating’ (pratarana) the people. With the numbers she has in Lok Sabha, she she could have easily prevented it. But when she opposed FDI in retail, the party again made a volte face. CPI-M trade union leader Shyamal Chakraborty said on this issue they wanted the TMC by its side. Opposing fuel price hike is cheating, but opposing FDI makes her acceptable to the Left as an ally!

The Magrahat incident has exposed another side of the CPI-M.. Nainan is a village in the Magrahat area in South 24-Parganas. Extensive power pilferage by ‘hooking’ was going on there for a very long time. The villagers claim they had applied for power connection as far back as 2005, but the Power Supply Department people sat over their applications. This led to hooking. Those in the know say that this malpractice started with the passive complicity of local CPI-M leaders.

Early this month some officers and men of the Power Supply Department went there to disconnect the hooking lines, after giving the villagers notice on three consecutive days. They were escorted by a police party. When they reached the village, they were srrounded by villagers armed with rods and sticks. The police opened fire, killing a minor girl and a 35-year old woman. Both were shot in the head while they were standing on the roof of a house..

Mamata, as the Home (Police) Minister, immediately ordered the transfer of the local Police OC, suspension of twelve policemen and an administrative inquiry. Next, she ordered a judicial inquiry into the firing by a retired High Court judge. The CPI-M did not get the time to whip up public feelings. Now the party says the inquiry must be conducted by a sitting, not a retired, judge.

Meanwhile, the Director-General of Police, in a note to the Chief Minister, has said that the CPI-M and its ally, the PDIC, were behind the Magrahat violence and had actually planned it. He has named five CPI-M and three PDIC men in his note. (The PDIC or People’s Democratic Conference for India led by Siddiqullah Choudhury was an ally of the TMC during the Nandigram days but later came close to the CPI-M.) The police have since found out that large quantities of brickbats had been collected by the mischief-makers. These were liberally used against the police for provoking them and precipitating a situation.

Nothing is unfair in love and war, it is said. The CPI-M certainly does not consider anything unfair in its war against the ruling party in Bengal—even creating a situation which will force the police to open fire. If people get killed it will bring fresh grist to the party’s propaganda mill. On the morrow of its electroal defeat, the CPI-M had said it would function as a ‘responsible Opposition’. The Magrahat incident has shown how ‘responsible’ it is.

The author was a correspondent of The Hindu in Assam. He also worked in Patriot, Compass (Bengali), Mainstream. A veteran journalist, he comes from a Gandhian family and was intimately associated with the RCPI leader, Pannalal Dasgupta.

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