Calcutta, Dec. 26: Mamata Banerjee today replaced a key minister for an undeclared but unprecedented reason in Bengal: perceived non-performance.
Partha Chatterjee, once considered the No. 2 in the cabinet, has been stripped of two industry-related portfolios. The vacancies have gone to Amit Mitra, who will continue to hold the crucial finance portfolio.
With one shuffle, the chief minister appears to have dealt two aces: send her team an unmistakable message to perform or perish and proclaim to industry that she was making it a priority by deploying the most business-friendly face on the frontline.
“Natun bochhor agamaner agey natun innings shuru korchhi (Before the New Year begins, we are starting a new innings). Bengal is on the road to development. West Bengal family is together,” Mamata said after announcing the new cabinet line-up.
Chatterjee has been eased off the portfolios of commerce and industry and industrial reconstruction. He is now left with parliamentary affairs and information technology.
The chief minister showed tact and grace by not making any adverse public comment about the performance of the ministries that have been taken off Chatterjee. On the contrary, she empathised with him. “Bechara ektuo shomoy pachchhe na (he is not finding any time). From now on, he has to assist me,” she said.
But the shuffle took place within a week of the chief minister grading the performance of the ministers on the basis of funds spent. Chatterjee was given two red cards (poor) in the industrial reconstruction and IT departments while he managed a yellow card (not bad) in the commerce and industry department.
Along with the industry portfolios, the unofficial No. 2 slot has also gone to Mitra, a former Ficci secretary-general.
Mamata’s growing reliance on Mitra to stoke investor interest in Bengal became clear earlier this year when he played a key role in organising the chief minister’s maiden roadshow in Mumbai. In her close circles, the chief minister had applauded Mitra for the success of the meeting that was attended by many leading lights of industry, including Mukesh Ambani.
“He has been given charge of industry as the chief minister is aware that Amitda, because of his Ficci connection, can reach out to industrialists in the country and request them to explore the option of investing in Bengal,” said a Trinamul insider.
According to him, the chief minister made a special attempt to help Mitra’s mission today by clearing land hurdles to four projects — including a power plant in Purulia’s Raghunathpur and a logistics hub in Howrah’s Sankrail — at a meeting of a panel on industry.
Although Chatterjee briefed the media about the clearance to the projects, it was apparent that the announcement was planned to help Mitra launch his innings with a bang.
“This is a new phase for the chief minister and she is putting governance and development ahead of anything else,” said a senior Trinamul leader.
Getting industry in Bengal has been Mamata’s Achilles heel although she and other Trinamul leaders have never missed an opportunity to talk of a deluge of investment proposals — on last count, it was over Rs 1.3 lakh crore.
Trinamul insiders, however, said that Mamata was aware that the state was failing to attract big-ticket investments. Data available with the Centre also bear out this fact.
While it is undeniable that Chatterjee became a victim of some of the rigid stands — like the hands-off land policy — of Mamata, senior officials said industry suffered because of his lack of vision.
“The finance minister is aware of the needs of industry and so it will be comparatively easier for him to deliver,” said a senior officer before adding a couple of caveats.
One, Mitra will be saddled with the burden of two key departments — finance and industry. Both require full-time attention.
Two, Bengal’s industrial fortune will not change just by reaching out to industrialists whose commitments will depend on policies and an enabling environment.
“But there is little doubt that the change was needed and the chief minister must be complimented,” added the officer, referring to the political history of Bengal. During the Left regime, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee had to carry the burden of non-performing and ailing ministers because of political considerations.
Sources said Mamata also had to make some compromises initially and carry on with Chatterjee as industries minister despite reservations about his performance. “Now she has settled down and she has taken such a tough decision,” said a senior minister.