Decoding Didi 2.0

Mamata Banerjee has hit a ‘sweet spot’ in her political career, but maintaining the momentum will be a challenge

A young female foreign tourist with a backpack in Kolkata’s Maidan area incredulously watches an approaching tramcar. Next moment she is transported in a trance inside the tram — finding herself tangoing with Shah Rukh Khan with Tagore’s “Chini go, chini tomarey — ogo bideshini…” (I recognise you my lady from an alien land) playing in the background. As Shah Rukh drops her in a silhouette movement on his arm — a motley bunch of passengers in the tram clap and cheer them.

It is a commercial being shot for Tourism Bengal’s campaign — ‘The Sweetest Part of India’. But, seeing the rushes Didi is not impressed. She thinks there is too little of Sharukh in the film. Turning to the secretary, she chides him — “Meye ta ke kaat hotey dekhe tumee nijey o kaat hoye geley” (seeing the girl drop — your jaw dropped too) and orders the ad agency to go back to Mumbai and shoot some additional footage.

One cannot vouch for the veracity of this account. Possibly one of those many apocryphal stories. But it sounds quintessentially Mamata Banerjee. It is her grass-root sensibilities talking. Even if Sharukh is doing the commercial for free — the production company is charging a bomb and she wants value for money. As a consummate communicator she knows what the audience wants but now also understanding the importance of slick packaging.

In another talked about instance, the CM landed at a newly refurbished Government Tourist Lodge in the Dooars forests of North Bengal. Though she liked the changes carried out, the tariff bothered her, which she thought was too steep for the regular Bengali tourist. She at once called the chief of Tourism Corporation from her mobile and asked him to reconsider the rates — who dropped it pronto by a thousand rupees. Mamata knows the Bengalis love for travel and she also understands their budget constraints. More importantly she is clear — it is this socio economic segment, rather than the affluent urban elite, who form her second largest constituency after the rural poor.

The new avatar

So, what is different about Mamata Banerjee 2.0? First, she has read the victory as an unequivocal positive mandate for herself (unlike in the first term — when it was largely a backlash against the Left). She nipped the potential anti-incumbency factor of local Trinamool satraps by declaring herself as the virtual candidate in all 282 constituencies — making it a “Mamata Vs. the Rest” election. Her strategy was paid off by the phenomenal win. The message was clear: people still trust her and she cannot let them down.

This is reflected in the self-assured confidence she displays. Much of the old volatility is missing. Though there is the customary criticism of the opposition and centre — it is sans venom and vitriol. There is the willingness for pragmatic cooperation as seen during the GST voting. Scores are settled with adversaries (like a media baron) through silent signalling. Limits are being set for party strongmen — reminding them no one is indispensable.

Second, she also sees the second-term as an endorsement and shot in the arm for her larger national ambitions. The days of being a regional ally in a larger coalition are behind for her. She is not the one to remain ensconced in Kolkata as Didi to her “Maa, Maati, Manush” leaving Delhi to the big boys of the cow-belt in lieu of a few meaty portfolios for her party in the Union Cabinet like a DMK, RJD or SP. Now, she is ready to play for bigger stakes. As some of her close associates have already indicated — “do not rule out” her being a serious contender for the top job.

However, for making that audacious bid — she needs to establish at least two strong credentials. First, is a track record of good governance and development — a la Modi’s “Gujarat model”. The second, would be a presence — however token — beyond West Bengal. For both, she has less than three years in hand.

Instant redress

Bureaucrats close to Mamata Banerjee claim — the work done in the last five years, especially in the villages, is underestimated. Banerjee thinks that has been the main plank of her victory and it is the administration — rather than the politicians — who ensured delivery. Therefore, this time round she has increased her reliance on bureaucrats over politicians. Much talked about in government circles are her Saturday “classes” at her Kalighat residence — where she is known to often read the riot act to errant party members.

Taking a leaf from the book of neighbour Nitish Kumar — she travels to the districts with secretaries in tow. Issues raised by local constituents are assigned to concerned departments — who are held accountable for execution of projects. Decision is instant. Officers are enjoying the new empowerment.

Banerjee realises — quick wins will come from services. Hence, the emphases on sectors like tourism. But, she also knows people would like to see new industries on the ground. Attracting industrialists to come from outside and inviting FDI may be fashionable but not going to be easy. Many expect her to “bite the bullet” on land acquisition in her second term but, doubt if she will risk it before 2019.

Besides, land alone will not solve the problem of industrialisation. The introduction of GST may further whittle the incentive for setting up manufacturing base in Bengal. On software, Bengal has missed the bus long ago. Possibly, the Kerala model could also well work for Bengal — where the economy thrives on repatriated earnings and service industries like education, healthcare and tourism.

Add to that tea, food processing, handicrafts and fish (both sea and inland pisciculture) and one could have a winning formula. With investment in education — West Bengal can become a major exporter of skilled and knowledge workers. Health-care can attract medical tourists. These are areas where local entrepreneurs may also be more amenable to putting their money.

Ramping up tourism

It may be argued that some of these are already happening. Sadly, today West Bengal is a source of low-skilled manpower — among them a large number are just transiting population moving from across the border. Young Bengalis go to other states for higher education in engineering and medicine — then settle in new employment hubs like Bangalore, Hyderabad, Pune and Gurgaon. Older Bengalis flock to Chennai and Vellore for Medical treatment.

In tourism statistics Bengal claims to get higher number of Foreign Tourists than Kerala. But it is not difficult to guess where they come from. Domestic tourist numbers are high, too, but even they are largely intra-State budget travellers and pilgrims.

High-end tourism too will need investment and infrastructure. But, there are some low-hanging fruits — Sunderbans, Dooars and the Hills. Well marketed with a proper tourism policy and quality assurance process — Sharukh’s tango just may work.

Whether Bengal is the Sweetest Part of India or not Mamata has certainly hit a ‘sweet spot’ in her political career and she knows it. Renaming the state from West Bengal to Bangla is a declaration of her ascent.

The writer is a blogger and current affairs commentator

(This article was published on August 31, 2016)

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Originally published at www.thehindubusinessline.com on August 31, 2016.