Editorial/ White hope of West Bengal
The lady and the businessmen
The Telegraph/ Diary
Letters to the editor

The industrialists of West Bengal who were present at the annual session of the Indian Chamber of Commerce heard the voice of the future and of change as well as the dreary voice of the inert past. The chief minister of West Bengal, Mr Jyoti Basu, fell back on the time honoured rhetoric of how much West Bengal has suffered because of discriminatory polices of successive central governments. To anyone familiar with speeches made by Left Front leaders through the late Seventies, Eighties and Nineties, this was old hat. Nobody buys this argument anymore even as a convenient alibi for the complete non-performance of the Left Front in the industrial sphere. Ms Mamata Banerjee, the main opponent of the Left Front and the frontrunner to be West Bengal’s first non-left chief minister after more than two decades, spoke with her eyes on the future. She promised the industrialists present that henceforth she would hold rallies only on weekends. She startled everyone by announcing that she is against bandhs. To the industrialists this must have been like manna from heaven. It is easy to condemn Ms Banerjee for saying something designed to win her applause and support from industrialists. But to an extent this is what politics is about. Ms Banerjee played to maximize the possibilities of her appearance in a chamber of commerce gathering. There is something more. At least one political leader has shown the courage to stand up and declare that she is against bandhs and that political rallies on working days erode work culture and are a public nuisance. Ms Banerjee took the risk to depart from the usual brand of populism.

This departure is one of the many signs that Ms Banerjee is on a learning curve. She has made the transition from a street fighting politician to a political leader. This is no mean achievement for someone who was condemned for her irresponsibility and for inciting violence and disruption. The experience of being a minister in the central cabinet and the prospect of leading West Bengal in the future have tempered Ms Banerjee’s enthusiasm. She has become more business-like and more conscious of the responsibilities that lie ahead of her. There is first the seizure of power from the Left Front which will do everything to cling to the turf they have dominated from the Sixties and ruled over from 1977. Then there is the more onerous task of rebuilding West Bengal from the ruins that the left will leave behind. The two tasks are linked. Ms Banerjee’s blueprint for rebuilding West Bengal will determine the strength she will be able to deploy to dislodge the Left Front. She has already promised that once in power she will offer investors a “comprehensive package’’. Mr Basu’s government, over the last five years, has been promising exactly this but investors have given up on the world of great expectations.

Complete disillusionment with the Left Front and its many promises is Ms Banerjee’s most valuable asset. She represents change and something different from the smugness and arrogance of the Left Front. People are willing to invest in her their trust because they want change and because they are tired of those who have been ruling West Bengal for the last 23 years. The strength of novelty should not be underestimated in the popularity that Ms Banerjee enjoys. Ms Banerjee will have to ensure that what she is saying now has some relevance when she draws up policies for the state when she is in power. Failure to do this will make her the victim of popular disillusionment. Just as she has learnt fast, expectations of her have also climbed with remarkable speed. Many of her past critics are becoming her admirers. But this admiration is volatile: it can evaporate if present words are not backed by action in the future. The skin of populism, the bane of all Indian politicians, irrespective of ideology, is not an easy one to slough off. Ms Banerjee’s challenge to the Left Front carries within it a challenge to the brand of politics on which she has thrived.    

Had I asked Mamata Banerjee a question at the 73rd annual session of the Indian Chamber of Commerce last Wednesday, I would have sought some clarification of where native Bengalis figure in her vision of the new Bengal in the millennium. For, predictably perhaps in such a forum, everything that was said identified the state wholly and only with the concerns and interests of those who are, as an ICC luminary put it nicely, “third, fourth and fifth generation Bengalis”.

It is no secret that the railway minister is a gutsy young woman who has matured unbelievably since she used to shriek her way around Calcutta with a strip of red rag tied round her temple. The question now is not just whether she can do for West Bengal what she has done for her own meteoric career, but whether she can go beyond the Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s narrow circle of business partners.

No one who heard her can have been left in any doubt as to her intentions. The confidence that she exuded, her completely natural mastery of adequate businesslike English, the briskness with which she cut through the obsequious compliments of tycoons to go to the heart of their questions and the pragmatism with which she outlined her plans for regeneration were certainly impressive. Here was a young woman with a sense of purpose laced with a sense of humour who spoke a language that was far removed from the political rhetoric we are used to. There were flashes, too, of the old street wit to remind us of the “colony” whence she sprung and of the legions of men at her back who can any day match Marxist rowdiness.

It was a very special audience that she was addressing. All honour to them for having made so good so far from their original base. In those three to five generations, they have acquired wealth, influence and the patina of sophistication. But what of Bengalis who have been that and nothing else forever, like Bidhan Chandra Roy, to whom she paid homage at the outset because he had apparently laid the foundation for the building? I am sure Mamata Banerjee has given the matter considerable thought. She repeatedly described herself as a “commoner” and a “grassroots” person. She capitalized many years ago on her colony culture to inflict a resounding defeat on the suave Somnath Chatterjee. Such a woman knows surely that it would be politically self-defeating for her to cater only to the restricted and exclusive ICC constituency.

Wednesday’s celebration highlighted the tragedy and paradox of Bengal to which Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy drew pointed attention in 1947. If Calcutta could not be the capital of an independent united Bengal, he wanted it to be a “free city” run by a condominium. “So, in the end,” Suhrawardy wrote, “the tussle will rage round Calcutta and its environments built up largely by the resources of foreigners, inhabited largely by people from other provinces who have no roots in the soil and who come here to earn their livelihood, designated in another context as exploitation.”

Suhrawardy was not pointing to the ICC which did not exist then. But his definition denied Calcutta’s Bengali identity. He saw the city as a comprador enterprise that neither reflected nor captured the ethic to which the “Kolkata” tag pretends to pay tribute. Some will say that this was a politically expedient posture. Others will justify Suhrawardy by citing dwindling Bengali numbers in the city. Bengalis must also be in a minority in the larger hinterland, stretching from Mizoram to eastern Uttar Pradesh and from Sikkim to Orissa, that the Calcutta-Haldia complex serves. But whatever Calcutta’s origin, and no matter who created the city’s wealth and how, Bengalis are still in a majority in the state of which it is the capital. Numbers without weightage create a peculiarly delicate equation.

The plight is not unique to West Bengal. It is shared with Fiji and Sikkim. In the former, the minority ethnic Fijians were content to leave economic power in the hands of Fijian Indians so long as they themselves monopolized political power. The trouble started only when Fijian Indians crossed the dividing line and reached out for political power as well. In Sikkim, the Nepalese majority is pleading for legislative reservation because it is vulnerable to pressure from settlers. They have been in a state of nervous alarm ever since Gangtok returned a Marwari member of the legislative assembly.

West Bengal has not resolved this conflict of numbers and power, of politics and economics. On the second day of the ICC’s celebrations, Manmohan Singh remarked that the CPI(M) said one thing in New Delhi and another in Calcutta. A close local observer might add that the dichotomy does not end there. Some of the revolutionary CPI(M)’s best friends are in the ICC. The alliance has certainly saved the Left Front from the Centre’s wrath on more than one occasion.

But there is more to governing West Bengal than making money or surviving. There was no hint on Wednesday of how Mamata Banerjee proposes to discharge the bigger obligation of which she must be acutely aware. Everything she said made sound sense of course. West Bengal needs a “comprehensive package” that includes land, power, finance and all other facilities to attract investors. Foreign, especially non-resident Indian, money must be secure. She stressed the importance of a work culture, of keeping politics separate from business, of a Siliguri-Haldia highway and adequate infrastructure. She urged the ICC to undertake a detailed study of each district so as to realize its economic potential, especially for agro-industry. She called for peace for development, and sought the involvement of people in reforms.

It was a bold and imaginative blueprint, and she did right to put it to third, fourth and fifth generation Bengalis since they alone have the money, the business acumen and the national and global contacts. But West Bengal’s silent majority is entitled to ask how Bengalis who are not of the third, fourth and fifth generation will benefit. Is she suggesting feeding horses with oatmeal so that sparrows can feed on their dung, which is how someone once described the trickle-down theory? Of course, it might have been inappropriate for Mamata Banerjee to talk of strategies for the poor or of saving Bengalis from extinction in the sanctum of big money, amidst a plutocracy of Bangurs, Goenkas, Khaitans, Jalans, Neotias and such like. But she will need a more widely-based programme to make it to the Writers’ Buildings. Her own people will judge her by what she does for the colony community.

There was a time when the CPI(M) promised to fulfil that expectation. With the Congress reduced to a Hindi heartland caucus, a toy for Sanjay Gandhi to play with during the Emergency, the Marxists emerged as sort of ideological Amra Bangali. Even more than economic revival, they promised dignity within the boundaries of the state. The CPI(M) had no leaders and no loyalties outside West Bengal. It was seen as its own master. But it did not remain so. While reforms in the countryside are undeniable, its long reign has been of most spectacular profit to the ICC’s Bengali by adoption. That, in itself, would have raised no cavil if the state as whole had benefited. That has not happened. In terms of village electrification, sick industries or foreign direct investment share, West Bengal is worse off than most other industrial states.

These are the drawbacks that need attention. It does no harm if in the process the rich become richer, but the primary purpose must be to add value to the lives of the poor. The CPI(M) seems to have lost sight of that order of priority; Mamata Banerjee cannot afford to if she is to be the saviour who will rescue West Bengal.    


Mission to be made possible

And you thought you had seen the last of him? Wrong. The babu is back with a vengeance and there are no traces of the humiliating defeat of the last Lok Sabha elections when as Congress candidate of the Calcutta Northwest constituency he had had his deposit forfeited. We are talking of Siddhartha Sankar Ray, who believes he can still send shivers down the political spine of West Bengal, even take the communists head-on. This is precisely what he has been planning. Ray recently dropped in at the state Congress committee office to discuss organizational matters with the newly elected state chief, Pranab Mukherjee. But why the eagerness after such a long time? Congress sources say it is because Ray is on the lookout for a safe assembly seat from where he can sail through. Manuda apparently has designs on the Chowringhee assembly seat from which he had won in the early Nineties. Ray’s “dissociates” say he has also been trying to impress the Trinamool lady with his gameplan in the hope she will not put up a formidable candidate for the seat and make things difficult for him. There is little sympathy for him from within the Trinamool though. A party worker was heard saying they wouldn’t allow didi to help Manuda, who comes alive only during elections. What a way to kill an old man’s dreams!

Who’ll be the chosen man?

Many in the AICC have been having sweet dreams of heading the media cell of the committee. The post has been lying vacant since Pranab Mukherjee made his quiet exit for the distant shores of West Bengal. Madam has, however, been particularly unresponsive on this score. She wants to delay appointment to the position till organizational polls are over later this year. Till then the responsibility will be shouldered by a minion, like a party general secretary. Ambika Soni, in all probability. Sonia Gandhi’s plan to sit tight on the matter however comes as a great disappointment to Kamal Nath. But he wouldn’t show it. The man argues he has no time for trivia: “I am travelling most of the time. I am not a drawing room warrior as you know.” No. That is perhaps why he plans to contest the Congress working committee polls again. He narrowly missed a CWC berth — four votes — at the Calcutta AICC plenary three years ago. Other notables who have set their sights on the media department are Arjun Singh, Vasant Sathe, Subbirami Reddy, Vishwa Bandhu Gupta and Ajit Jogi. A whole galaxy. But who’ll be the real star?

More troubles from one man

Talking of Vasant Sathe. The recent doings of the former Union minister has been cause of great embarrassment for the party leadership. In an editorial of the Congress mouthpiece, Congress Sandesh, Sathe toed the Swadeshi Jagran Manch line — debar the entry of multinationals in India. There are other impossibles Sathe wants — the income tax net should include 18 per cent of the population, there should be a consensus between, guess who, Sonia Gandhi and AB Vajpayee on, god forbid, Sathe’s vision of the economy as enumerated in his publication, Arthik Swaraj. The AICC’s economy thinktank, Manmohan Singh and Jairam Ramesh in it, hasn’t bothered to read up Sathe’s gem. The grapevine has it that Sathe had discussed Sonia’s “inexperience” in his editorial and had to be really persuaded to cross out the portion. Madam reportedly is having serious thoughts about abandoning the Sandesh’s publication. And rightly so, with editors like Sathe, who needs enemies?

What’s keeping this man?

Granted, the president of India nowadays has to do some serious thinking, especially on the eve of the Independence and Republic Days, about what misfortunes have befallen the country. But could he really be that busy? KR Narayanan has not been able to spare even a few moments for the new election commissioner, TS Krishnamurthy, who wants to pay him a courtesy call. Krishnamurthy is a constitutional functionary and there is nothing seriously wrong about his deeming it proper to call on senior dignitaries of the New Delhi establishment. After joining as the third election commissioner, he has therefore visited, in keeping with his sense of propriety, the vice-president, the presiding officers of the two houses of Parliament and the chief justice of India. Krishnamurthy apparently has sent several reminders to the president about his impending visit. The president however is yet to grant him an audience. What could be the matter? Republic Day is almost five months away.

Footnote/Hair lies the tale

/ Everyone — well, almost — knows he is a Rajput. And he too makes no bones about it. He likes Rajput hangarounds and Rajput men in his department. Yet many were surprised to see him flaunting his identity so unsubtly. Foreign minister Jaswant Singh was in a Rajasthani turban at the Independence Day function at the Red Fort. Those who do not know him too well drew the obvious conclusion. He was portraying himself as one with his kinsmen back home in the desert state. But a turban tied in the typical Rajasthani style with the tuft flowing out from the top presented a rather incongruous picture, especially since he wore it with his trademark finely cut safari suit. His ministerial colleagues made discreet inquiries. It dawned that Jaswant was making no political statement, at least not this time. It so happened that upon the death of his mother, the external affairs minister had tonsured his head. What he was trying to prevent was any unkind comparison with Bollywood villains. Jaswant Singh sported a turban, and occasionally even a cap, till he had a full crop of hair again. Nothing to worry our heads over.    


Abuse with a difference

Sir — “The bird with the broken wing”, by Madhumita Bhattacharya (Aug 29) attempts to confront an issue which is generally considered taboo in the Indian context. The article details how rampant incest is and that there are no laws in the country against child sexual abuse. What was unsettling was the tone of the article. It appears that the writer perceives the problem to be gendered. Her primary concern is with girl children and throughout the piece she reveals this time and again. She would be well-advised to consider addressing both boy and girl children in her next write-up about child abuse because it is an issue that concerns both.
Yours faithfully,
J. Rajagopalan, Calcutta

Don’t spoil the fun

Sir — Adults invariably have something negative to say about what we children enjoy. Earlier, it was about television spoiling the reading habits of children, and now that children are reading Harry Potter, adults still have an awful lot to say (“Rolling in the stuff of magic”, Aug 26). It is true that only children who read books written in English read Harry Potter, but is it not wonderful that many such children have turned away from the “idiot box” which they were glued to earlier? Supriya Chaudhuri should also take into account the children’s series that was a sensation just prior to Potter. Francine Pascal’s “Sweet valley” series, which was about identical twins in a snob school and romance, appears quite empty compared to the Potter series. It is to J.K. Rowling’s credit that she covers adventure, mystery, a magical world of witches and wizards, school life, criticism of unreasonable adults and even adolescent romance.

Books like Enid Blyton’s The Faraway Tree had a special appeal because of their magical atmosphere. C.S. Lewis had a similar appeal. Rowling blends a magical world with school life and vividly presents a world very different from a normal child’s world in Harry Potter. I am yet to meet a 10 year old who has not enjoyed Harry Potter.

Finally, Harry Potter may be expensive but it is better to buy a book than to run up huge electricity and phone bills because of television and the internet. I hope some adults at least will agree with me.

Yours faithfully,
Rohini Sen, Calcutta

Sir — Supriya Chaudhuri’s article talks about the perils of letting our children read politically incorrect books. But those of us who have grown up reading Enid Blyton for instance can hardly be said to have run this risk. The gender stereotypes in her mystery stories and other things like the absence of female characters in Noddy have not influenced the way we look at life. Our notions about gender have almost certainly been shaped by the cultural ambience we have grown up in, notwithstanding what we have read and enjoyed as children.

Yours faithfully,
Abhishek Roy, Calcutta

Loss of tune

Sir — The sudden demise of the music director, Kalyanji, has ended the last surviving pair of Bollywood’s three most popular duos namely Shanker-Jaikishen, Laxmikant-Pyarelal and Kalyanji-Anandji.

Kalyanji’s foray into the music world, his association with Hemant Kumar during the making of Nagin and the subsequent creation of the snake-charmer’s tune in the song Man dole mera have all become legends. The Kalyanji-Anandji duo will always be remembered for their wonderful hits from films like Upkaar, Don, Qurbani, Safar and so on.

Yours faithfully,
Abhijit Roy, via email

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