No one can blame Mamata Banerjee, who has faced everything from ridicule to physical blows from the Left Front when it was in power, for being aggressive in dealing with her political opponents in Bengal.
However, it is now becoming increasingly clear that she has got her political act all wrong. Far from taking on her opponents, she is invigorating them by taking on her allies. After stalling every kind of economic rationalisation or reform proposed by the Congress – be it petrol price hike or FDI in retail or, now, the Pension Bill – she is now stretching her relationship to breaking point.
Politically, it is clear what she is trying to do: she is attempting to out-Left the Left by espousing every kind of self-defeating populism, and making a nuisance of herself to her coalition partners at the centre, even while giving the Left ammunition for a political comeback.
Obviously, what she wants is a “Bengal package” - central resources and debt relief that she can use to throw freebies around and show her voters she can be more munificent than the Left. She is obviously angry that the Left pursued a scorched-earth policy and left the state treasury empty.
This is what prompted her to sack her own reformist railway minister, Dinesh Trivedi, when he presented a sensible budget. The railway treasury is the only one she can raid to feed her populist inclinations.
Well, Mamata-di, here’s a sobering piece of advice. You’ve got your political calculations all wrong. In Bengal, you can’t out-Left the Left even if you team up with the ultra-Left, the Maoists, as you did before the elections. Only the Maoists can be Lefter than the Left – you can’t.
Mamata’s problems do not relate to the lack of resources in the state treasury, but a bankruptcy of ideas. She has drawn the wrong conclusions from her 2011 victory, just as the BJP did after the 2004 defeat.
In fact, Mamata has wrongly concluded that it was Singur – from where she drove the Tatas away - and Nandigram that gave her victory, when she actually won because the Left had destroyed industry in the state and the population was fed up with the lack of opportunities under Left rule. The Trinamool won because the state’s voters wanted poriborton, not more of the same policies that bankrupted the state and destroyed jobs and growth.
The BJP, after its 2004 defeat, was shell-shocked and concluded that it was its India Shining campaign that cost it victory. The truth is the BJP lost for many reasons, including wrong choice of allies, and not just the India Shining campaign, which, in any case, was premature. The economy was just about ready for takeoff, and not yet shining. The shining part came in the following three years and the Congress took credit for that.
In politics, it is differentiation that matters. It's what gets you victory – assuming the conditions are right. As a Right-wing party, the BJP failed to get its message across to its core voters and paid the price in 2004. It paid the price again in 2009 because it continued to ignore the urban middle class, with the Congress setting the agenda on the aam aadmi and the nuclear deal.
In Bengal, the core anti-Left vote is Right-wing in character, and if, Mamata-di does not water the roots of this constituency, she will lose her base. In the past, even when the Left was in power, the Congress’ voteshare was never more than 5-10 percentage points short of the Left because of this loyal base.
Once Trinamool became the rallying point for the anti-Left vote, the marginal voter saw a credible alternative and consolidated behind it and the Congress in 2011.
Today, it’s the other way around. The core Left vote remains intact, as Trinamool’s recent loss in the Haldia municipal polls shows. If Mamata-di continues to make more political mistakes, the non-committed voters in the middle will switch back to the Left.
Mamata-di, your predicament in Bengal is the same as the BJP’s at the Centre. The Congress is the party which owns the aam aadmi label. In fact, the Congress has a long history of soft populism from the days of Nehru and Indira Gandhi. Rajiv Gandhi, after a brief dalliance with Right-wing ideas, shifted gear after the Bofors scandal dented his image. The Narasimha Rao interregnum in the early 1990s – when the country pushed reforms - was an aberration necessitated by external bankruptcy.
It is the same populism that Sonia and Rahul now draw upon. They own continue to own the aam aadmi franchise, and the BJP cannot take it from them.
Stung by the 2004 election loss, the BJP shifted to a wishy-washy aam aadmi posture, and began to oppose all the reforms it espoused when the NDA was in power – FDI in retail, pension reforms, privatisation, et al.
If it continues to pretend that it can out-aam aadmi the Congress, it is seriously mistaken. In fact, the BJP’s nirvana lies in rebranding itself as a Right-wing party, both in terms of religious conservatism (as the Republicans do in the US, and various Christian Democratic parties do in Europe) and economic policy.
The BJP’s top leadership has managed to confuse itself. It required a Narendra Modi to tell the party that this would be political suicide. In an interview to The Economic Times, Modi said: “The government has no business to be in business. It should play the role of a facilitator. In my state, investors don't have to grease the palms of politicians or bureaucrats. There are well laid-out policies. I believe that country can progress only if we end red-tapism. No red tape, only red carpet, is my policy towards investors.”
If the Congress’ route to victory is through wealth redistribution and freebies, the BJP’s roadmap to victory is by promising higher growth and better incomes. It has to paint the prospect of raising the poor to middle class status, not by reducing everyone to supplicant and beggar.
If Modi is taking the BJP to its natural positioning as a Right-wing party against the Congress, it stands to reason that you, Mamata-di, have to do the same in Bengal. You do not have to wear the BJP’s Hindutva garb, but your party needs to embrace Right-wing economics to recharge the core anti-Left base of support that brought you to power.
Trying to out-Left the Left will only benefit the Maoists.
Mamata-di, you have a choice. You can do a Modi in economic policy or a Mao. Doing the latter is political suicide.