India's communist slayer struggles to deliver

KOLKATA - Two summers ago when Mamata Banerjee ended three decades of communist rule in West Bengal, many had hailed her as a saviour of the state that got left behind in India's economic boom.

To signal her unusual brand of politics, 'Didi', or elder sister as Ms Banerjee is affectionately called, had even walked to work on her first day as the state's new chief minister while thousands of supporters lined the street to cheer her. Change, poeple had felt, was in the air.

But as her government entered its third year this week, Ms Banerjee's progress report is marked with more red ink, blotting out popular hopes of her state's swift turnaround from the long decades of stagnating communist rule.

Industry has stayed away, so a million promised jobs have not materialised. Instead, costly populist policies have only worsened overall debt, one of the highest among all Indian states, forcing her government to seek a three-year moratorium on loan repayment.

She remains distracted by her still formidable communist foes, and her brusque personal style and inability to handle criticism have alienated many urban middleclass voters -- who rue that her governance hasn't gone beyond promising rhetoric.

Worse, a scandal that broke last month around a dubious Ponzi scheme wiping out millions of dollars in savings of poor Bengalis has posed the toughest political challenge yet to her two years in power. Some of her party leaders are accused of backing the Ponzi firm.

"So far she has appeared completely clueless when it comes to governance," says Sabyasachi Basu Ray Chaudhury, political science professor at the Rabindra Bharati University in Kolkata.

"She has been naively idealistic. She still comes across as the opposition street fighter that she was than someone in power," he told The Straits Times.

Ms Banerjee's Trinamool Congress is one of India's major regional parties which used its support to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's coalition up until last year as leverage to scuttle tough economic reforms.  

Whether she learns from the mistakes of her chaotic first two years in power could determine if she will once again play a significant role in national politics after next year's general election. 

To be fair, Ms Banerjee inherited a state virtually broken from 34 years of communist rule. Militant trade unionism had dislodged West Bengal from a position of industrial strength, and the communist design for control of state institutions resulted in an overall degeneration of Bengal society.

Although late, the communists tried  to benefit from India's market liberalisation in the 1990s, but such efforts seemed facetious from a government which once sought to raise money for a power plant through blood donation camps.

In the end, they bequeathed Ms Banerjee US$40 billion (S$50 billion) in debt -- and a damaging legacy of governance that included leaving out English from primary education to promote Bengali language.

For a woman who has been fighting the communists since she entered politics, Ms Banerjee's honesty and frugal lifestyle only added to the mountain of expectation of her. 

"Many people thought that she will come in and with one fell sweep change everything," Abhirup Sarkar, economics professor at the Indian Statistical Institute in Kolkata who sits on several state government panels, told The Straits Times.

Still, Ms Banerjee appears to have little strategy to deliver her state from decades of economic mismanagement. She has hired thousands of teachers and policemen and is paying allowances to jobless youths and Muslim clerics, although the state coffers are empty.

So far, her signature accomplishment has been to symbolically remove all vestiges of communist rule in capital Kolkata by painting kerbside and public urinals, police cars and municipality trucks blue. The blue border of her saree has come to symbolise her party.

Under her, thousands of fancy street lamps dot already lit roads and Indian Nobel-winning poet Rabindranath Tagore's songs play from loudspeakers installed at some of the city's busy intersections. She has honoured many Bengali cultural icons, as part of her desire to revive Bengali heritage.

"Sure, she has inherited a bankrupt treasury, but her governance has been a limping shame," says Sundeep Khanna, senior columnist  for the Mint newspaper.

Her supporters, however, say Ms Banerjee's style may not be popular but she is silently overhauling the state's blighted education and healthcare sectors, building scores of schools and hospitals in the countryside.

Her government has banned industrial strikes and she has clamped down on Maoists in the state. Her governance has also focused largely on the rural poor. This week, she announced a set of new policies, including  one to attract investments. 

To her critics, however, her personality is part of the problem. She apparently can’t take criticism and is paranoid about an imaginary global communist conspiracy spanning North Korea to Venezuela to malign or even kill her.

Some say political violence has risen in the state as Ms Banerjee's Trinamool Congress goes after its communist rivals to perpetuate its rural base.

Often, she comes across as insensitive: She accused a rape victim of fabricating the case to discredit her rule; she got a university professor arrested last year for sharing by email a cartoon of her and last month brushed off the death of a leftist student leader in police custody as "a small matter".

But it's the Ponzi scandal that erupted last month which could potentially singe her at impending village council elections -- the first test of her popularity since coming to power largely riding the support of rural voters. 

Most of the duped investors are poor villagers. Hundreds of them have marched to her house and offices of Trinamool Congress across the state, urging her to help them recover their money.

In response, she has set up a five billion rupees fund, jokingly even urging people to smoke more so that money could be collected fast from a hike in cess on cigarettes that will partly contribute to the fund.

"This scandal is a big blow for Mamata and how she handles this could affect her rural bastion," says Mr Basu Ray Chaudhury.

For Ms Banerjee's government, despite the choppy start, morning may not afterall show the day, says professor Sarkar. 

"After all what we are talking about here is tackling a mess of 34 years. It takes time," he says.

Email: mkritti@sph.com.sg