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July 14, 2011

Ushering real change in West Bengal

Mamata Banerjee’s opportunity

Mamata Banerjee, West Bengal’s new chief minister, has set very clear timeline, for the first 100, 200 and 1000 days. At the very least this has provided a benchmark to hold her government to account. More importantly, this may provide additional impetus to the new government to think out of the box, and try to meet the people’s expectations.

True to her style, Ms Banerjee has set a frantic pace for herself, holding innumerable meetings and making surprise visits to hospitals and other public spots, firing off instant orders, cajoling the government staff to serve the people better

While her intentions are clear, there is a limit to the number of places she can visit, and the number of orders she can issue, given the enormity of the tasks before her, after defeating the Marxist-led Left Front government that had been in power for nearly three and a half decades.

Mamata Banerjee’s electoral achievement, in the 2011 election, is historic. The expectations are running very high, carrying with it the seeds of possible sense of disappointment. If a sense of purpose and performance do not become evident, people’s support could easily turn in to ire and anger.

Photo: Janet and Phil

Just five years ago, Buddhadeb Bhatacharjee had led the Left Front to a resounding reelection victory, winning over 230 out of the 294 seats, riding on the promise of Brand Buddha, of industrial revival and economic opportunities. But within a couple of years the brand had begun to lose its shine as the protests against land forcible acquisition built up. The violent response from the police and the cadres of the CPI(M), shocked most people, rural as well as urban population. Suddenly the protests against land acquisition had turned in to a wider issue of dignity and justice, touching millions, ultimately bringing down the mighty Left Front at the hustings.

This time, Ms Banerjee has provided an inspiring vision, reviving the place of Bengal in the Indian rubric. She has promised to bring peace and prosperity, to reinvigorate agriculture and industry, to turn Kolkata into London, Darjeeling into Switzerland, and to build on Bengal’s rich cultural and intellectual heritage.

But political rhetoric is no substitute for political performance, which alone can help sustain the credibility of the symbolic gestures. Ms Banerjee’s political capital may deplete quickly unless she can find ways to improve the performance of her government in a very visible form and in a relatively short time.

Depoliticisation of administration

Politicisation of the administrative machinery, including the police force, has been a big issue in Bengal for quite some time. There have been allegations of the administration being infiltrated by CPI(M) cadres, and that they worked only as per the direction of the party leadership at different levels. This can be changed relatively easily. A political decision needs to be taken that political intervention in the basic police function will not be tolerated. Once the message permeates out to the rank and file of the police force, those who had earlier politically compromised themselves will either get isolated within or have to change to their approach.

With her resounding message of change, it is reasonable to believe that there will be significant sections of people in all organisations, including the police and the administration, who, given the political lead towards performance and professionalism, will soon be able to bring about the necessary changes and show results. It is these professional and dedicated police personnel who need to be assured that they should act without political consideration, and that they will not be penalised if they act impartially and professionally.

Recognising land rights

However, the first cabinet decision was to return 400 acres of land in Singur to the families who were reluctant give their land for the Tata Nano project. The Trinamool Congress is also against forcible acquisition of land. Recognising and protecting land rights is only the first critical step towards substantively changing the land laws. The land rights need to be converted in to clear title. The title needs to be easily tradeable, so that the owner is in a position to maximise the value of the property. But the value of the property is dependent primarily on what use it can be legally put to: agriculture, residential or commercial.

This will require a reform in the zoning laws as well. West Bengal hosts a huge number of small businesses and workshops, a very large number of them in the informal sector. These provide the bulk of employment opportunities to people. Legalising these properties would open up huge potential for investment, opening enormous economic and employment opportunities. Recognising land rights, documenting land ownership, facilitating land transactions, freeing up land use, will greatly help in diffusing the unnecessary conflict between agriculture and industry.

Devolving political power

Ms Banerjee has also promised to take substantive steps to tackle two hotspots in the state: the Maoists in the Jangalmahal areas in the west, and the Gorkha agitation in Darjeeling. She wants to engage in a dialogue, and holds the promise of a special development package to people in these areas.

But anyone who has followed various insurgency and separatist movements in different parts of the country knows that throwing money to buy peace rarely works. What is needed is a genuine political empowerment at the grassroots.

Perhaps it is not a coincidence that she dreamt of turning the hills of Darjeeling in to Switzerland. But Switzerland not only offers scenic beauty and modern living, but also provides the most vigourous example of bottom-up democracy. The Swiss have a federal model where most of the powers are held at the local and cantonal level, and the national authorities are largely dependent on what flows from the lower and local levels of the community to the top. Unlike most of Europe, this bottom-up participatory democracy in Switzerland has been able to nurture a country out of the linguistic, religious and ethnic diversities. The peace and prosperity in Switzerland is a consequence of its truly devolved federal polity.

The Left Front heralded the panchayat system in rural Bengal as a means to help the party control the population. Ms Banejree has to make the panchayat truly represent the people, rather than any political party. She does not have the elaborate party structure of the CPI(M), but carries with her enormous goodwill of a large section of the population at the grassroots. In such an environment, she could stimulate bottom-up democracy to allow people to participate in governance at the local level. These would on the one hand legitimise the institutions of government, and on the other reduce fiscal stress.

The new government has promised to develop economic clusters to promote opportunities for development and growth. But historically, clusters have evolved locally out of necessity when the economic environment allowed it to grow. Devolving decision making to municipalities, wards and panchayats, and removing zoning restrictions, economic clusters would grow on its own without any state assistance.

Politics of performance

The economic stagnation coupled with political arrogance on display during the three decades of Left Front rule in Bengal, was not just a failure of the leadership, but a consequence of the communist ideology: economic scarcity, perpetuation of poverty and institutionalisation of fear in an attempt to keep a lid on the aspirations of the people. These characteristics are the hallmark of all communist countries in the world. Only in Bengal, this was legitimised through successive electoral victories.

But in a democratic polity, ideological purity is not a virtue if it adversely affects political performance. Once the prevailing sense of injustice reached a critical mass in the aftermath of the violence in Singur and Nandigram, politics of fear was no longer sufficient to keep the CPI(M)’s hold on power. Ms Banerjee seized on this sense of injustice, and found the opportunity to revive her political career, emerging as a credible alternative to the Left Front.

Ms Banerjee has been the first one to acknowledge the need for performance. She would do well not to get bogged down by any political ideology that may adversely affect the performance of her government. That would open a whole range of policy options for her to try out from, in search of ways to improve the performance of her government. Today, only she can unlock the unlimited potential for change.

Whether Mamata Banerjee’s government is able to bring about the change she has promised only time will tell. But one change that has already taken place—citizens of West Bengal are much more politically empowered, having brought about this dramatic change in their political space. The voters may cherish their new found political voice, and could be ready to change again if Mamata Banerjee’s government fails to live up to their expectations.

Ushering real change in West Bengal

The politician in Ms Banerjee will be the first one to recognise the value of political capital. The political entrepreneur in her should seize the small window of opportunity and lay the foundation for fundamental change, take the small but immediate steps towards a new West Bengal.


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