DANGEROUS TRIUMPHS 

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By BY BHASKAR GHOSE
  • Published 8.10.00
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There will be many in West Bengal who will see the initial capitulation of the Central government on the price of oil - however partial - as a gift to the common toiling people from that great giver of gifts, Mamata Banerjee. And given, appropriately enough, just before the puja festivities started, so that there will now be more vitality in the sound of the dhak, more fervour in the activities in the puja pandals, in the plays being staged, in the musical programmes being organized. All because of a gift given from Mamatadi, who is standing firm in the face of the unfeeling Central government. The revelry will consequently be more frenzied, more abandoned. Some of the more foolish among these revellers will, no doubt, liken their didi to the goddess herself, standing forth in her awesome anger, riding her rampaging lion - no prizes for guessing who that is - and then demolishing the forces of darkness, the Central government, which as always works against the good of the people. Such foolishness is understandable, even if it cannot be forgiven; Indians are never very far from a total surrender to idolatry. We need someone to install on the throne left empty by that strange, alien system called democracy; witness the deification of M.G. Ramachandran, N.T. Rama Rao, Indira Gandhi and the rest. There is considerable speculation on the next elections to the state assembly in West Bengal. Jyoti Basu has now said openly he will not stand for election, being too ill and too old - and, possibly fed up. There is really no one in the Left Front who has anything like his charisma and his ability to win the trust of the people; and, on the other side, is the volatile Banerjee who appears to have it all - charisma, the trust of thousands of followers and the ability to lead her riotous, turbulent party to victory. The possibility, then, of her being the next chief minister is not quite as fanciful as it was, say, five years ago. It is this possibility that makes her present stand on oil prices not just a populist stance, but positively dangerous. The Central government had initially given in to her adamant demand that the rise in oil prices be withdrawn or else she leaves the government. As a consequence, an enormous amount of money, some Rs 3,000 or Rs 4,000 crore, perhaps more, would have had to be found, over and above what is already being paid for oil imports to offset the increase in oil prices. Where would this money have come from? Has Banerjee, the occasional cabinet minister, ever thought seriously about that? As it is, she knows only too well, as does every minister and official in the government, that the governments, both at the Centre and in the states, are far too weak-kneed to take the hard option of cutting back on its staff. That was the main condition attached to the recommendations of the fifth pay commission and this has been virtually ignored. It is not easy, admittedly, to take such a hard step, but it simply has to be done. If a third of the employees of all governments, Central and state, in all their thousands and thousands of offices and agencies and corporations, were to be pensioned off and the vacancies so caused not filled, it will go some way towards reducing the frightening deficit that the government faces, a deficit that is now, to all intents and purposes, out of control. But no. All one gets is much rhetoric from such demagogues like Banerjee. Give the people food at prices they can afford, she rages shrilly, give them kerosene at cheap rates, don't raise the price of diesel so that bus fares don't go up. And how will the governments pay the bills for cheap food, cheap kerosene, cheap power, virtually free homes, and for more and more jobs in every government office? By increasing taxation? Certainly not. Because then Banerjee and other leaders will organize hartals, agitations, strikes and even violence till the craven Central government gives in once again. Where will it all end? This is what is so dangerous. Leaders like Mamata Banerjee, who may, just may, become chief minister of West Bengal, simply don't care. They want power, they want to lead, they cannot do without the heady euphoria of seeing hundreds of thousands of people hail them as saviours, as the new idols. Had they cared, had Banerjee really cared, she would have worried about the country's finances, and used her immense hold on the people of the state to explain why the rise in the oil prices was unavoidable. Had she really cared, she would have taken the sternest measures possible to contain violence in her party, the infiltration into it of murderous thugs. Had she really cared, she would have set about weeding out corruption from government agencies, starting with the ones her party controls, like the Calcutta Municipal Corporation. One says this with great sadness, because she, more than anyone else, has the ability truly to develop the country, beginning with her own state. Unlike many leaders in other states, she lives a most spartan life, is totally committed to the people of her state, and has the trust of a growing number of them. But she seems to have chosen the populist path; the way of rhetoric, of soul-stirring speeches and appeals to the emotions, rather than the admittedly more difficult way of organizing her raucous, turbulent party into a reasonably disciplined lot, with aims that are attainable and which will improve the lives of ordinary people - like trying to eliminate corruption, and improve basic services in hospitals and schools. The rise in oil prices did indeed cause widespread anger; and in her own state, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) would not have let it pass without milking it for all the political mileage they could get out of it. But she is still a part of the government. Did it need the blatant posturing she indulged in, loading the exchequer with expenditure it just cannot bear, to counter that? Surely her political power was strong enough to give her alternatives. It does not need a very perceptive person to point out that leadership, at any time, is not a matter of passion and rhetoric; it may need that, but it is also, and in very large measure, a matter of hard decisions to be taken for the ultimate good of the people, the good that will last and not fade away. It means not merely brave talk about tightening belts, but measures to make that happen. There seem to be very few in our states, leave alone the Centre, who have the courage to take this much harder path to true leadership. One thought Mamata Banerjee was one of this rare breed of leaders; but it seems now that one was grievously mistaken. The author is former secretary, ministry of information and broadcasting