Mamata Banerjee: Misinterpreting the ‘poriborton’ mandate

Matt Damon, popular Hollywood star of action films like the Bourne series and Oceans Eleven, recently fired a hard punch at President Obama, something that he usually lets loose on the screen on the villains. A big supporter of the President, Damon did not pull any punches while being critical of President Obama’s performance. According to Matt, President Obama has misinterpreted his mandate.

The question that people in Bengal are beginning to ask or should be asking, if they are already not, is “Has Mamata Banerjee misinterpreted her mandate of poriborton?”

Mr Damon let nearly 3 years of a 4 year Presidential term pass before he raised his voice. However it is important to raise this voice in Bengal today as the state can ill-afford to let go of another 5-year term after losing out on three decades under the Left rule. To set things into proper context and to be fair to Mamata, there are many positives in the last six months: bringing a sense of normalcy in Darjeeling, using political and administrative tools to start winning the hearts and minds of people in the Maoist areas, and bringing about an administrative energy that has been absent in Bengal for too long.

The West Bengal chief minister will have to walk the extra mile to reassure potential investors and attract investments into the state.

Her government’s attempts to reform the education and the health sectors and improve the delivery of other social services the results of which will be known over a period of time will require lots of money, something that the bankrupt state clearly lacks. Thus, the key issue around which her administrative legacy will be created will be around the turnaround of the moribund state economy and attracting dollops of capital since the central government can only afford to foot a very small part of the bill.

This — attracting dollops of capital — is clearly an area where she has not been successful. Given her image of a radical firebrand leader who drove out Nano from the state, she will have to walk the extra mile to reassure potential investors and attract investments into the state. In this context it is surprising and disappointing that the signals that she has sent so far are not favourable to the industry and the political causes that she has championed from her opposition to decreasing misdirected fuel subsidies around diesel or LPG, or stalling forward movements in retail or in key financial areas like pension and insurance betray a tendency to ape the Left to marginalize their opposition than clear thinking around what actions will improve her state’s economy. So far we know what she opposes but we have no idea what she supports and what her economic vision is.

The current economic crisis in European countries should open her eyes to the impossibility even in fairly affluent countries to persist with misdirected social subsidies in the absence of adequate resource generation. The government’s populist measures to not raise the prices of electricity, transport or milk are going to lead to near-term and long term crisis. Her party’s stint in the Railways should also be an important guide as to how improvements in efficiency cannot by itself raise adequate resources in absence of viable market pricing of the services rendered.

Populism, combined with the anti-reform impulse of her politics takes the image of Bengal back to the days of negativity that came in first two decades of Left rule. The ‘No to IT’ being replaced by ‘No to retail, agriculture, financial services’. The politics of ‘No’ is followed by those who are afraid of the future and folks in Bengal can ill-afford such pessimism from their helmsman at this crucial juncture.

The people in Bengal, especially the youth, are as talented, dynamic and motivated as anywhere else in the world. One has to look at the progress that non-resident Bengalis have made in any city of India or the world at large. To paraphrase an old adage, the people of Bengal are looking for tools to fish, not be provided with the fish itself. She should put an end to the politics of patronage and cater to the politics of opportunity and aspiration.

She has got the mandate to bring this poriborton and she has time on her side now. In this context she better have a word with her Finance Minister, who in his previous avatar as the Industry advocate had often used the phrase, ‘rent-seekers’. Abundance of them in the economy decrease productivity without adding anything to the economic value-chain.

Bengal in its hand-out based economy built assiduously by the Left to maintain its vote-bank has created plentiful of these rent-seekers that need to be weeded out immediately. These require bold administrative measures that Ms Banerjee has been unwilling to take thus far either on resource mobilization, or allowing key reforms and reminding people of their commitment to themselves and the family and not look out for the state for hand-outs.

She needs to act on these measures to take Bengal out of its past morass, improve its present and provide the foundations for a better and brighter future. It will also allow her to gather the resources necessary to build the key enabling physical and social infrastructure that the citizens require to be successful.

Ms Banerjee needs to stop looking over her shoulder for the ghost of CPM. People in Bengal want to move on and it is for this that the Bengal electorate has voted decisively for poriborton. She needs to seize the initiative soon or lose her mandate completely.

Mamata Banerjee has a rich legacy already having single handedly destroyed the Left bastion, but her final legacy will be richer if she takes Bengal to a path of glorious prosperity rather than being another political leader who destroyed the mandate given to her. It is hers to lose and she should not do that but seize the opportunity and then she would have delivered to ma, maati and manush.