Mamata Banerjee's demonetisation rage: Reckless charges will only mar her standing

Mamata Banerjee is angry. No, make that very, very angry.

She has been raging since 8 November when the prime minister abruptly brought the curtains down on high value notes. Lakhs of crores of old currencies have since been deposited, some new ones have been printed, queues at banks have gotten longer, shorter and longer again, opposition parties have aligned and realigned their formations and the BJP has registered victories in by-elections and civic polls.

In all these 20-odd days though, the West Bengal chief minister's temper hasn't abated. It has been rising steadily instead, crossing all levels of reasonable and unreasonable danger, touching frantic heights till she exploded in a fit of apoplectic frenzy on Thursday, crying assassination attempt, coup and civil war all in a matter of few hours.

Let the charges sink in a bit.

People familiar with the Trinamool Congress chief's style of politics knows that she has never let facts come in the way of rhetoric. But even by her mercurial standards, the latest charges are weird and worrying. The hysterical meltdown that she has suffered since Thursday night well into Friday morning, locking herself up in a chamber at the state secretariat building vowing to "guard democracy" seems straight out of The Yellow Wallpaper script, not the conduct expected of a senior politician and the chief minister of a state.

It will be wrong to dismiss Mamata's behavior as delusional. Far from it. There is not a small amount of calculation in her histrionics. Media loves a scene. It thrives on theatrics. The manicured paranoia is likely to cement the TMC supremo's cult farther among followers and may even catapult her into national consciousness. In a season of opportunities when some opposition leaders are busy outdoing each other in leveling fantastic allegations, Mamata has put clear daylight between herself and the chasing pack.

Take the alleged assassination plot, for instance. It certainly indicates the high degree of self-importance Mamata places on herself but it is reckless to propose, without any evidence whatsoever, that someone or some forces were trying to eliminate her. The airline in question has released a statement categorically clarifying that the flight, along with two other flights, were kept on hold due to congestion at the Kolkata airport and had a "normal landing".

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. PTI

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. PTI

Speaking to The Indian Express, director of Kolkata airport Atul Dixit said "The flight was short on fuel for holding. While holding time was 13 minutes, the flight had fuel for 8 minutes. But additional fuel for diversion to nearest destination was available in the aircraft. Laid down procedures were followed and it was a safe landing."

According to IndiGo — as reported by the newspaper — captain of flight 6E 342 from Patna "at no stage declared a fuel priority or an emergency. Subsequently, the airplane made a normal landing at Kolkata airport at 8.40 pm (delayed by an hour due to congestion). The fuel on arrival was more than the minimum diversion fuel."

This should have cleared all apprehensions. But that didn’t stop TMC minister Firhad Hakim from saying that this was a "conspiracy to eliminate" his leader while another MP interjected that the plane was "about to crash". With the DGCA launching a probe into alleged miscommunication between the pilot and the ATC, more details would soon emerge but in trading these irresponsible and outlandish charges, she is irreparably damaging the Centre-state relationship.

Hardly had the embers died of the 'assassination plot', Thursday evening saw a panic-stricken Mamata alleging that the Narendra Modi government is out to stage a coup by deploying the army and seizing power. For good measure, she also sniffed a civil war plot.

First, it is unclear why the Centre would try to unseat Mamata Banerjee through a coup. She runs a democratically elected government which has just returned to power with an overwhelming mandate. The Centre has little political benefit to gain and absolutely no legal, moral or ethical right to dismiss the Trinamool-run government. Even if we were to assume, for reasons known only to herself, that the Centre indeed wants to topple her, Modi government just needs to invoke Article 356 and declare President's Rule in the state instead of staging an Army-backed elaborate coup.

Unless the Centre has been struck with a bout of sudden lunacy, it makes zero sense for Modi to try and topple Mamata government who in the larger scheme of national politics has little relevance. The NDA runs a government at the Centre with brute majority, the Prime Minister continues to enjoy popular support and his party has just won crucial by-elections in different parts of the country.

By no stretch of imagination is the NDA government even under the remotest threat. Under the circumstances, Mamata's charges of coup appear frivolous, irresponsible and mischievous. Moreover, by dragging the army into the picture while it was involved in a routine drill, the Bengal chief minister is bent on erasing her credibility even more. If she really wants to become a national player — and all this hue and cry would suggest that she believes the resultant noise will serve a political purpose — Mamata must understand that these reckless allegations are weakening her case.

Addressing the media in the wake of the allegations, the Army on Friday rebutted Mamata's charges of a coup and said it had sought prior permission from the state government — a key bone of contention.

“Army formations in Eastern Command at local level are carrying out routine data collection exercises on availability on load carriers at all the major entry points in various states. This is being done in coordination with local police authorities. The exercise was earlier planned on the night of November 27-28, 2016. The dates were changed to 30th November to 2nd December on a specific request by Kolkata police due to Bharat Bandh on November 28,” Major General Sunil Yadav stated while addressing the media on the charges, according to a report in TimesNow.

The Eastern Command had released a tweet on Thursday night detailing the states where similar operations were taking place and Wing Commander SS Birdi, ministry of defence, CPRO, Kolkata, had addressed Mamata's concerns on Thursday night itself by saying that "there is nothing alarming about this and it is carried out in accordance with government orders. This gives us an estimate about the number of vehicles that are passing through a certain area, which can be tapped during operations."

But as Mamata and her party's extraordinary tirade went on all through the day in both Houses of the Parliament on Friday, the Army was forced to release a series of letters that showed that it was in communication with the West Bengal police on the annual exercise to "gather statistical data about load carriers that could be made available to the army in case of a contingency". The Army further said that this annual exercise is also being carried out in Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar from September 26 to October1 this year, according to a ANI report carried in Business Standard.

In Parliament, Union Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar expressed "shock and dismay" and clarified that such an exercise had been carried out in the state last year as well from 19-21 November and that this is a 15-20-year-old practice. He refuted allegations that the state was kept in the dark and said: "concerned officials were informed in West Bengal. The original date was fixed for 28-30 November but due to Bharat Bandh the local police had advised the Army to shift it to 1-2 December… Due to traffic congestion, the exercise is being done with the help of local police."

But the TMC chief remains unconvinced and resolute on her extraordinary plot. A part of the math could be that through her vociferous and bizarre protestations, she is trying to ensure headlines and clinch the empty opposition slot. This may fit well with the latest development where Mamata's overtures of a united front were rebuffed by a key regional satrap, Nitish Kumar, who also persuaded alliance partner Lalu Prasad Yadav to refrain from joining Mamata's anti-Modi front. The Bengal chief minister, who has vowed to "oust Modi from politics", thus might be feeling a little insecure about her future.

The opposition — that includes the state BJP, Congress and the Left Front — has repeatedly alleged that Mamata has been rattled by the wiping out of unaccounted wealth amassed by her party. Though they have offered zero evidence in support of their claims, it has certainly come to the notice of tax officials that West Bengal leads a sudden spurt in deposits into Jan Dhan accounts.

In a report published on 24 November, Business Standard details that close to Rs 21,000 crore has been deposited in jan dhan accounts across the country since demonetisation with Bengal recording one of the highest deposits. In areas bordering Bangladesh, some have received strikingly high deposits in accounts meant for the poor, said the report, adding through a source in a PSU bank that for the first few days after demonetisation banks in other subdivisions received close to Rs 1 crore per day while that amount was nearly Rs 5 crore in some banks in a sub-division bordering Bangladesh.

There is little point in trying to decipher reason in Mamata's polemical protestations. She is driven by own rules which admittedly have served her well in regional politics. While operating on the national scene though, she must temper her rage with wisdom. Else King Lear is a handy example.

Updated Date: Dec 02, 2016 16:52 PM

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