Madam, perhaps it might be time for you to resign and go.
Ruchir Joshi has gone and said what a lot of newspaper pundits were tiptoeing around.
Mamata Banerjee has done what even her most diehard critic didn’t dream she could do writes Joshi in The Telegraph. She has scrunched the Left Front’s 34 years of sins (which she never tires of enumerating) into less than 34 weeks of her own government.
It’s almost as if she came armed with a checklist of mistakes to repeat and has determinedly gone through it at breakneck duronto speed.
“The Left had subverted the state police into their armed peons,” writes Joshi. Mamata’s police are just as good (or bad). They have used the FIR as a weapon with which to club a university professor. When goons railed real blows on civil society activists protesting the eviction of poor people from Nonadanga, the police arrested the victims, not the assailants.
“The Left had overseen the gang-rape and assaults on women from Bantola and Birati to Nandigram,” Joshi reminds the CM. Mamata, who had once been assaulted by the CPM’s goondas, showed little sensitivity when it came to assault on women under her watch.
“The Left had ruthlessly attacked anyone who criticised them, using State machinery to silence and sideline dissent,” writes Joshi. By unleashing the power of the state on a cartoon, Mamata has shown herself to be even more thin-skinned and intolerant. Mamata, the candidate, took the high road when a CPM MP made truly vile comments about her during the election campaign. But Mamata, the CM, was quick to accuse an innocuous cartoon of trying to thwart progress with obscenity.
She stormed into power on a slogan of change but now it’s clear, writes Joshi, that she was already “deeply corroded by those years of Left rule,” “terminally infected by the Baam Front rot, by their poisonous paranoia, by their vengeful megalomania.” As Indrajit Hazra put in the Hindustan Times there are two clear lessons to draw from the whole sorry affair:
One, that 34 years of Left Front-rule in Paschim Bonkers has left the new chief minister damaged; and two, in the Bananarjee Republic, you better stick to jokes the CM can giggle to.
Mamata has been staring into the eyes of the monster for so long, she seems to have internalised it. The CPM, at least in its vendetta politics, went after real political enemies or those who got in the way of its Tata Nano factory in Singur. Mamata, in her paranoia, shadow-boxes with cartoons.
The horror of the cartoon affair was not just the defamation case or Didi’s lack of humour but the goons who showed up first to thrash the university professor. Abheek Barman had warned about this in the TOI even before the cartoon affair exploded:
The CPM's dreaded cadre - jobless lumpen who make a living from violence and extortion - switched loyalties to Trinamool. All of a sudden, Mamata had a party, thousands of goons - and a state to run to the ground. She's getting there.
The CPM is no friend of Mamata’s. 34 years of established infrastructure is not going to vanish meekly into the night after one electoral defeat. Mamata is right to be wary. But there’s a difference between being wary and crying wolf. Her shrill reaction to every crisis, real or imaginary, is just playing into the CPM’s hands an AICC official told the Bengali daily, Ananda Bazar Patrika. “In all aspects Mamata is trying to carbon copy the CPM,” the official said. “Everything the CPM has done to be rebuffed in West Bengal’s politics, Mamata is following in its footsteps.”
Ruchir Joshi’s acid-tongued editorial will not shake Mamata’s personal golden fortress. Didi has never shown any propensity to own up to any mistakes. Her policy has always been shoot first, apologise never. Her base does not give two hoots about liberals with their dhotis in a twist about a cartoon storm in a tea cup. “Didi has her math right where it matters, that is her vote bank in the rural areas of Bengal,” a Trinamool party legistlator told the India Ink blog. “Her extreme populist measures, such as no price-hike policy, has kept them happy and will continue to do so.”
Perhaps. But why this suicidal urge to needlessly alienate the rest of the voting public who so desperately wanted to give her a chance after years of Left rule? That is the great moral failure symbolised by the handling of the cartoon affair. “Nero played the fiddle while Rome burned,” writes Tathagata Bhattacharya in his blog on IBNLive. “Rabindra sangeet (Tagore's songs) already fills the air at the Kolkata crossroads.”
Didi has gone mum. The CPM is chortling. The Congress, used to being snubbed by Mamata, is smirking. The only people not laughing are the good citizens of West Bengal.
At the end of his book Poriborton: An Election Diary, Ruchir Joshi recounts an anecdote in the heady days after the great election victory. Joshi is on the way to the airport with his friend N after a night of celebration marking the end of decades of Left Front rule.
As the taxi makes its way through an empty Park Circus crossing we find ourselves laughing through our respective hangovers.
“Smell that air,” I say, “it smells of freedom!”
“It smells as it always does, of tannery pollution.”
Read Joshi’s stinging letter to Madam Banerjee in full here.