November 12, 2011

UPA's most vociferous critic may script her own political decline in the state

West Bengal's Madame NO

By Aditi Phadnis / New Delhi, Business Standard, November 12, 2011, 0:28 IST

Later this month, Mamata Banerjee will have been chief minister of West Bengal for six months. Time for a balance sheet?

First, all the things she’s managed to get done — only because they’re easier to count. She’s taken some positive steps to revive the glory of the Presidency College of Kolkata, the institution that has given India some of its best thinkers. She’s managed to defuse the Gorkhaland crisis by offering a tripartite agreement, paving the way for the setting up of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) — an elected body for the Darjeeling hills.

But most of all, she has managed to establish a reputation as the most vociferous critic of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) within the UPA.

When the Centre increased the price of LPG earlier this year, Banerjee first resisted (“the Centre did not take us into confidence…” and so on). Then she took on a mien of martyred indignation (“the state government will bear the burden of the increase in LPG prices”) unconcerned about the fact that the state government’s finances are in no shape to take on the burden. She threatened to withdraw from the UPA over the current round of petrol price increase, only to recant later.

A Union minister has referred to Banerjee as a compulsive populist. It is hard to dispute this description.

Take her government’s attitude towards the price of electricity. West Bengal is considered a role model in power sector reform. The West Bengal State Electricity Board (WBSEB) was trifurcated as part of power sector reforms that began in 1985. In 2005-06, the state also corporatised transmission and distribution. There are three power companies in the state now, carved out of the electricity board that together showed a profit of over Rs 300 crore for 2010-11. The government did not privatise: and those employed by power companies (30,000 or so employees) are the only ones to get their salaries regularly because they don’t depend on the state government.

But things can change very fast. Demand for power has been rising and so has the price of coal in a state that depends mostly on thermal power. With the massive electoral victory in her pocket, Banerjee could have increased the cost of electricity in the first week of assuming power without any difficulty. Instead, after she took over as chief minister, one of her first meetings was with the power secretary and her bottom line was: electricity prices will not be increased. In Kolkata, the only area where a private sector entity provides power, the cost of electricity was increased in April 2011 in sync with the cost of coal, and it is likely to increase again. In the summer of 2010, West Bengal had a peak demand shortage of between 500 Mw and 700 Mw, which is expected to go up to between 800 Mw and 1000 Mw this summer. A perfectly healthy sector is going to be driven to sickness: because Banerjee doesn’t want to become unpopular.

But what she doesn’t realise is her troops are making her extremely unpopular. Somen Mitra, a Trinamool Congress (TMC) MP, took the unprecedented step of bypassing his own party to complain to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in a letter about the activities of chit fund operators in Parliament — an important MP from his own party is a big chit fund “entrepreneur” and was admitted to the TMC by Banerjee only recently.

The biggest problem (although it is not clear if she sees it as such) is: Banerjee is TMC and TMC is Banerjee. Take her handling of the Maoist problem in the Junglemahal region. Subhendu Adhikari, described by TMC watchers as the man of the future, organised the TMC’s victory in east Midnapore. Adhikari ensured the Left was routed in this area using his supporters, but also the rather more persuasive powers of the gun. He is considered intelligent, popular and ruthless. In Banerjee’s dictionary this spells threat. So, she bypassed him and asked another leader Mukul Roy to handle the Junglemahal problem. Roy made no headway. So now Adhikari is back.

The thing is: no one knows who is in and who’s out. So the impulse is to ensure there is enough for dinner tomorrow, for who knows what might happen at breakfast today?

For the moment, Banerjee has little to fear from the parliamentary opposition. The Left Front’s disarray is embarrassing. Ill-health dogs former Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, especially ahead of party meetings. The Left trade unionists are lethargic, missing even the opportunity to mobilise state government employees who are now beginning to get annoyed at the fact that their DA has not been revised because the state government doesn’t have the money.

But the challenges are snapping at Banerjee’s heels. West Bengal will see panchayat elections in 2012. How will the TMC fare? Will these elections represent the first glimmers of a Left comeback?

If Banerjee goes on like this, she will be the one to have scripted it!       

Didi’s dadagiri: Storms thana, gets arrested partymen freed

By Madhuparna Das 

Posted online: Indian Express, Tue Nov 08 2011, 02:20 hrs

Kolkata : In an unprecedented intervention, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee stormed a Kolkata police station late last evening and forced the release of two members of her party arrested for rioting, arson and ransacking the police station about an hour earlier.

The police action came after the men — along with a mob of 300 — clashed with policemen from the Bhowanipore police station who had asked them not to burst high-decibel crackers late in the evening outside a cancer institute and a children’s hospital, and block both carriageways of S P Mukherjee Road, a major south Kolkata thoroughfare.

The men were part of a boisterous Jagaddhatri Puja immersion party. The puja is controlled and managed by one Jagannath Sau, a close associate of Baban Banerjee, one of Mamata Banerjee’s brothers.

Jagannath Sau has six cases — including extortion and cases under the Arms Act — against him, said the officer-in-charge of Bhowanipore police station. Sau was present at the spot — as was Baban Banerjee. Sau allegedly supplies building material to local Congress and Trinamool leaders and men engaged in real estate promotion.

Chief Minister Banerjee — who rushed to Bhowanipore police station from her Harish Chatterjee Street residence nearby — reportedly shouted at Kolkata Police Commissioner R K Pachnanda, Divisional Deputy Commissioner (South) D P Singh, and the head of the police station for stopping the immersion party. The chief minister also has charge of the state home department, and the police report directly to her.

Trouble began at around 9.30 pm. Local club Bhowanipore Players Association was taking its Jagaddhatri idol for immersion in a procession that was led by a loud band from the Sebak Sangha club, which is located at 14/1 Rani Sankari Lane, very close to where Banerjee lives.

A DJ was playing “masala Hindi numbers”, witnesses said; and both carriageways of S P Mukherjee Road were blocked as club members set off loud crackers right in front of Chittaranjan Cancer Institute.

A police request to club members not to disrupt traffic and disturb patients quickly degenerated into an argument, and the policemen were pelted with stones and bottles. Police retaliated with a lathicharge, and the mob entered the Bhowanipore police station, destroyed property and tried to set fire to several vehicles parked outside the police station. Private vehicles on the road were attacked as well.

The chief minister arrived on the scene at around 10.45 pm — apparently walking all the way after receiving news that some of her party members and supporters had been attacked by police in what is a Trinamool stronghold. She allegedly rebuked the Bhowanipore police station OC for having obstructed the Puja procession, and got the police to release two men who had been arrested for the rioting.

Tapas Saha and Sambhu Sau were allowed to go without cases being registered against them, sources said. No case has been registered against the procession organisers either. Officially police denied having taken anyone into custody.

Saha works full-time at Banerjee’s Kalighat party office. He is secretary of the Bhowanipore club, and has recently got a job with the Indian Railways. He was reportedly taken to hospital with injuries on his legs.

Sambhu Sau said, “Police arrested me and Tapas, threw us in the lock-up and began beating us. We are members of Trinamool Congress. The police refused to release us even after our leaders, Dr Nirmal Majhi, Dulal Sen, and Minister for Urban Development Firhad Hakim reached the police station. They relented only after Didi arrived. Didi is God to us. Didi arranged for my treatment and sent Tapas to hospital.”

Ratan Malakar, Trinamool councillor from Ward No. 73 where the club is located, said, “When our appeal to the police failed, Didi intervened. Her brother Baban Banerjee also reached the police station.”

Subhajeet Goon of Sebak Sangha club said, “After police told us to stop bursting crackers and playing loud music, we told them to take a look at our club banner and the address. Our club is located just beside Didi’s residence. But the officer started abusing. After that we could not control our rage.”

Goon added that Sebak Sangha members had gone to Banerjee’s home at around 10.30 pm to complain. “Didi did not waste time and rushed to the police station. Didi got our brothers released.”

D P Singh, DC (South), said, “We are yet to identify the people who ransacked the police station. We have started an inquiry. Some people were bursting loud crackers in front of the hospital and they were asked to stop doing that. In no time, they attacked our officers and the police station.”

An inquiry has been ordered into the alleged police failure, it was learnt from official sources.

Of threats and pressure tactics

By Marcus Dam

THE HINDU, November 5, 2011 01:22 IST  

Is the Trinamool Congress' reaction to the recent hike in petrol prices about its ‘tolerance' wearing thin or about fending off charges of complicity?

By threatening to pull out of the United Progressive Alliance government over the recent hike in petrol prices, the Trinamool Congress leadership is trying to wriggle out of a politically deleterious situation in which the Centre finds itself, as disaffection mounts over the spiralling prices of essential items.

Needless to say, the threat is being made from a position of strength, the Trinamool Congress being the second largest constituent of the UPA. If carried out, it could pull the rug from under the feet of the government.

Whether the threat will be carried out or not is, of course, another matter. But the Prime Minister is certainly in for some hard bargaining on his return from his overseas tour if the apple-cart is not to be upset. For, all such threats — by definition in political parlance — are, for all practical purposes, pressure tactics.

Under attack in recent times from both the Left parties and, albeit with less stridency, the Bharatiya Janata Party, for not speaking out against economic polices of the scam-tainted Congress-led government at the Centre, the Trinamool Congress has found in the fourth hike in petrol prices this year an opportunity to express its resentment over not being consulted by the Congress in matters of major consequence, despite being a constituent of the UPA.

And in one fell swoop, it would also invalidate claims by her political rivals that she, by being a silent spectator in the government, is apathetic to the problems of the common man buffeted by the rise in the prices of essential commodities.

That the Trinamool Congress is peeved over the Congress riding roughshod over it was made clear in the reminder by its chairperson and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee that while a pullout by the party would result in the toppling of the government at the Centre, it enjoyed a majority on its own and was not dependant on the Congress to stay in power in West Bengal.

Doubtless, the Congress in West Bengal plays second fiddle to the Trinamool — a political liaison that has rarely been harmonious but has survived because of the Congress in New Delhi insisting that it has. One can already see some more disgruntled sections of the Congress in the State secretly delighting in Ms. Banerjee's most recent posturing.

“Somebody has to bell the cat. If we are outside the government, we can at least speak in the interests of the people,” Ms. Banerjee has remarked. But it would be politically na├»ve to assume that the rise in the prices of petroleum products, the growing rate of food inflation and the consequent burden on the common man are the only reasons for her grouse.

Ever since assuming power in May, she has been expressing her displeasure over the Centre for failing to provide her government with a special financial package that would bail the State economy out of the bankruptcy it has allegedly inherited. The issue dominates her rhetoric. Is the pullout threat also a pressure tactic for extracting from the Centre the financial assistance?

By her own admission, the government of which her party is a part, has been responsible for the rise in prices of petroleum products “eleven times in twelve months” which she feels is “intolerable.” This begs the question why the Trinamool Congress was not as assertive of its opposition to the price hikes then, the way it is now. If one goes by what Ms. Banerjee has to say, it is the party's “tolerance” which is now wearing thin.

Or is it that the Trinamool Congress is finding it difficult to fend off charges of complicity each time there has been a rise in prices and of pursing an economic line that is no different from that of the Congress? For that has been the argument of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), its principal adversary in West Bengal.

At least the threat of a pullout from the government and all the hype it generates could be designed to project the impression that the party is not just sympathetic to the common man's concerns but that its position in the government should be taken more seriously by the Congress.

After all, over the past two-and-a-half years “we have not even been given a room [for the party] in Parliament,” not to talk of “we not willing to accept the burden [price rise] being thrust on the people,” according to Ms. Banerjee.

And even before one can doubt the seriousness of intent, she pre-empts any questions that could be asked in reference to it. The Trinamool Congress is not “blackmailing or bargaining” as might be made out by some, Ms. Banerjee, who has always had a penchant for histrionics, has said. “Forgive us, but we have not done any wrong,” she says, her hands folded.