Bengal’s chief minister has gushed to claim Pandit Ravi Shankar as Bengal’s great son. “His deep-rooted bond with Bengal will be treasured forever in our hearts” Mamata Banerjee wrote on her Facebook page.
Ironically Ravi Shankar died on a day when Bengal’s much-vaunted culture was on full-fledged public display at its worst.
MLAs were having catfights in the assembly, raining blows on one other, two women were pulling each other by the hair, other MLAs were allegedly kicking a female MLA who had been knocked down. “We were always a little snooty about our political culture compared to Uttar Pradesh and Bihar,” said one commentator on the ABP Ananda news channel. “Now we are exposed as all the same.”
Yesterday, the Congress showed up to work wearing safety helmets and placards that read “First save the head, talk later.”
The immediate cause for the brouhaha was an attempt by CPM members to talk about the government’s role in regulating chit funds in the state. But the fracas that followed revealed a government that’s suddenly confronting the enemy within.
Up to this point, Mamata’s iron grip on the party meant other than an occasional “unnamed Trinamool leader” no one within the party dared grumble openly to the media.
Kabir Suman, the singer turned Trinamool MP, had long become the dissident MP/voice of conscience for the party. But Suman is politically irrelevant as he does not really have any political base and has made it clear he’ll exit the stage once his term runs out in 2014. That’s why Mamata is in no hurry to make a political martyr out of him. She does not want him writing a song about her that will go viral the way he did after the cartoon mess.
But Suman, long a lonely voice in the wilderness, now has company.
Meet Shikha Mitra, newly suspended Trinamool MLA. Her big sin was dubbing the whole assembly dust-up as “shameful.” Mitra didn’t single out any party for blame, saying instead “whichever party was involved in it, the incident is shameful.” That obviously went clearly against the party line which was blaming the CPIM.
Mitra had already been on probation. The party had not liked earlier comments she had made. As the wife of current Trinamool MP and former Congress leader Somen Mitra, her proximity to the Congress is a mark of suspicion against her.
Before Mitra, Mamata already had her hands full with other upset leaders.
Rabindranath Bhattacharya, a 79-year-old schoolteacher from Singur, has been miffed about his ‘demotion’ from minister of agriculture to minister of statistics in her last cabinet reshuffle. He has said he wants to resign from the party. “I have seen my party members collecting money from the masses and asking for money against any job they do for them,” he told the Indian Express.
“This is a dangerous time. Opening your mouth or attempting free expression of thought can be tantamount to inviting danger,” consumer affairs minister Sadhan Pande told a chamber of commerce meeting on December 11, further raising, the Hindustan Times said, “the discomfiture index of the party.” Pande has been with the party since its inception.
Siuli Saha, Trinamool MLA from Haldia has been hitting out against the party’s East Midnapore strongmen saying the “party is not anyone’s personal property.”
As of now none of these “dissidents” want to directly take Didi on. But they are getting closer with longtime labour leader and Mamata loyalist Shobhandeb Chatterjee talking about ““a section of party people involved in syndicates and extortion ringing the chief minister for their personal gain.” Chatterjee was manhandled by members of a Trinamool backed trade union at Calcutta University recently. Mamata has not said anything about it. “Shobhanda is a senior MLA and none of the top leaders has made any statement in his support… If an attack on a party member goes unaccounted for, how can we convince people that the party will give justice to them?” a Trinamool MLA told The Telegraph.
As of now, that MLA was unnamed. But it seems more and more politicians are finding the guts to attach their names to their grievances. The “extortion” and “syndicate raj” charges sting because Mamata’s great selling point was her incorruptibility. But that does not count for much if she becomes a sort of Manmohan-like figure presiding over syndicate bosses all out to extort as much money as they can. What’s worse is unlike Manmohan, Mamata can actually crack the whip because without her, most of her party leaders are nothing. As political commentators have said when Trinamool swept the Communists out of power, Mamata was really the party’s candidate in every voting booth.
Trinamool’s reaction to these rumblings of discontent has been to just clamp down harder. The party has issued a diktat that no leader can talk to the media without clearance for the parliamentary affairs minister. Shikha Mitra dismissed that as a “Talibani fatwa” and said she would not “bow” her head to it.
All it means is that though Mamata complains the press does not cover her government’s achievements, the talking head shows on television are filled with gleeful Congress and CPM leaders while Trinamool is missing in action. Left leader Udayan Guha told a television panel Mamata has turned out to be a leader who thinks she’s running a club, not a government. She goes to town lamenting her empty coffers but spends lavishly on ticker tape parades for a cricket team or hosting Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan. “She just likes to cut ribbons and host soirees,” sneered Guha.
Culture which was once the government’s great pride has become the government’s great blind spot. What Mamata probably didn’t want to remember yesterday while lavishing praise on Ravi Shankar, was the great sitarist’s last encounter with Bengal was a snub.
Mamata had wanted to honour him and actress Suchitra Sen with her newly instituted Banga Bibhushan award. Ravi-ji agreed until he discovered that Didi had shoehorned a whole host of other people into the awards list as well. He turned it down giving his congratulations and blessings to the other winners – “several wonderful artistes who are like children or even grandchildren to me.” His wife said he could not be treated "like 29-year-old or a 51-year-old." Didi, it was clear, had a prioritisation problem.
Mamata is apparently disgusted with the wrangling between Trinamool factions. She has told her new ministers to “behave responsibly” according to the Times of India. The latest fracas in the Assembly gives her an opportunity to set an example for them.