Midnight office hours. No protocol. No red tapism. No security cordon. Mamata’s opening innings sets the pace for Bengal, reports Tusha Mittal
ON THE afternoon of 20 May, hours after her swearing in, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee emerged from Raj Bhavan and peered into a tsunami of faces. Euphoric, swelling crowds — nearly 2.5 lakh — thronged the kilometre-long road to Writers’ Buildings. “Democracy has to be with the people,” she said. “I saw the crowds and asked the governor’s permission to walk to Writers’ Buildings.”
It was from there that Banerjee had been hauled out 17 years ago. Then a firebrand Congress worker, she had been agitating outside former CM Jyoti Basu’s office, insisting he meet a woman who had been allegedly raped by CPM workers. As the police yanked her out, Banerjee swore to set foot in Writers’ Buildings only after the Left was ousted. On the afternoon of 20 May, she kept her vow.
In her first 48 hours as chief minister, the people’s leader broke all protocol. She refused a bullet-proof car, declined the privilege of free passage, instructed police to halt her black Santro — No WB 02U 4397 — at traffic signals, worked in office until 12.35 am the day she was sworn in, and went on impromptu tours crisscrossing the city, sending security guards into a tizzy.
It is clear Mamata Banerjee understands the world is watching. At every move, every sharp turn of her black Santro, cameras are close behind. Many expect her to carry on her old capricious ways. Others are holding their breath to see a mercurial mass leader transform into an efficient administrator.
Banerjee seems resolute to prove she can be both. That is why, in her first 48 hours, she hit all the right notes, but not without her signature Mamata-esque candor.
At first, there were the niceties, the markers of magnanimity: When Banerjee learnt that invites to the swearing-in ceremony were being faxed to Left leaders, she immediately dispatched close aide Mukul Roy to deliver them personally. At 8.35 am on the morning of 20 May, deputy Assembly leader Partha Chatterjee was sent knocking on former CM Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s door. Given the recent callousness of Bengal politics, this personal invitation to an arch nemesis was significant. Bhattacharjee accepted. It was perhaps the first time in West Bengal that an outgoing CM attended a swearing-in. There were other firsts. Seema, a sex worker from the Sonagachi red-light area, received an invitation. As did the families of ‘martyrs’ who died in Netai and Nandigram. On the afternoon of 20 May, a people’s CM kept her vow.
Then came the symbolic gestures:Making her grand entry watch into Writers’ Buildings, Banerjee bypassed the elevator and became perhaps the first CM to walk up the rickety staircase to her cabin. Inside her chambers, she scoffed at the brown wall-to-wall carpeting, the cushion chairs wrapped in faux-leather, the foam padding behind her cabin door, the fancy panelling. All of it must go, she declared. It is to be replaced with wooden chairs for herself and her guests. The walls will be painted cream and ornamented with Tagore paintings and her waiting room will be enlarged to accommodate more visitors. She has announced plans to have an expanded secretariat — a CMO on the lines of the prime minister’s office. She also plans a weekly darbar, a day when any aam aadmican — with prior appointment — meet the CM.
The Cabinet will meet once every 15 days. Saturdays are working days. And there will be no 10 am-5 pm culture
Then there is the articulation of a work ethic: The Cabinet will meet once every 15 days. Saturdays are working. And there will be no 10 am-5 pm culture. Never before had Writers’ Buildings been open until midnight. After the swearing-in, Banerjee addressed her first Cabinet meeting at around 5 pm: Singur topped the agenda. Then her first press conference as CM around 8 pm: “I’m sorry I cannot give you tea and snacks,” she told the press. She stressed the need for a modern canteen functioning post 5 pm. By 10.30 pm on her first day, TMC sources say there was no drinking water in Writers’ Buildings. She complained about the abysmal infrastructure and toured the building herself for an ideal canteen spot. Banerjee then sat in her cabin hammering at her final list of ministers. Many people had to be rewarded, all interest groups represented, her earlier declaration of a “small Cabinet” grew rapidly to the maximum possible. Partha Chatterjee announced the list past midnight — 37 ministers from the TMC and seven from the Congress. The CM left office at 12:35 am on Saturday. By noon, she was back in. “Efficiency and performance will be the yardsticks while working. I don’t blame workers. The culture should trickle down from the top,” she said.
On her first full day of work as CM, Banerjee met 20 ministers, calling in at random whomsoever she wished to see. “She was breezing in and out the whole day. There was no protocol,” a TMC source said. At one point, she suddenly appeared inside the room of Urban Development Minister Firad Hakim. “How is your room? Let me see,” she peeped in. “Oh it’s brighter than mine!” A dusty moth-eaten portrait of Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy hung on the wall. “Change it!” she said before breezing out.
Back in her cabin, she met representatives from employee associations and trade unions, asked them to work without political bias, said she would personally hold meetings every three months. She asked MLAs not to interfere with the police administration and told the police they should arrest people irrespective of political affiliation.
On Saturday evening, Banerjee walked out of office, sat on the front seat of her black Santro, and went on a whirlwind city tour. Huddled in the backseat were Kolkata Mayor Sovan Chatterjee and Firad Hakim. Frantic, her security convoy tried to follow, but no route was predetermined. She turned where she pleased. She inspected an ongoing flyover project, the Parama Island-Park Circus flyover. “Why is work happening from only one end?” she asked Chatterjee and Hakim. “Get this started from the other end as well.”
On Sunday, Banerjee worked from her Kalighat home. She asked PWD Minister Subrata Bakshi for a status report on heritage buildings and debriefed her successor Mukul Roy on railway projects.
In many ways, at least in ignition, Banerjee has set in motion a proactive work culture. Other ministers have promptly taken cue. Higher Education Minister Bratya Basu announced a committee to study senior appointments across 600 campuses, to depoliticise education and restore merit. Food Minister Jyotipriya Mullick talked of opening a 24-hour control room to ensure citizens get ration cards and BPL cards within 48 hours of application. Sports Minister Madan Mitra said stadiums would be for sports only. Industries Minister Partha Chatterjee asked for a status report on all industrial projects approved and all MoUs signed by the Left government.
On hearing media reports of an inmate missing from Alipore Jail, Correctional Administration Minister Shankar Chakrabarty made a surprise midnight trip to the prison. Elsewhere, hearing media reports of a food crisis in the Alipore Zoo, Forest Minister Hiten Burman dashed to the zoo. For three days, food supply had stopped because of unpaid food bills. This after the zoo’s former deputy director had been suspended — a day before the poll verdict — on charges of financial irregularities. The forest minister immediately sanctioned funds and then proceeded on a zoo inspection. “Is it Indian?” the minister asked peering into the giraffe cage. “Sir, they are found in Africa,” he was informed. On his way out, the minister muttered: “I haven’t been to the zoo in a long time.”
THERE ARE the policy decisions: In her first Cabinet decision as CM, Banerjee turned to the thing that catapulted her to power: land. She announced that 400 acres of fertile land would be returned to farmers in Singur. When asked if there was a deadline, she said: “We have just taken over. I don’t know about deadlines, but I have drawn the boundary line.”
She further announced: A “comprehensive review” of the Left Front’s land allotment policy. A special package for minorities, to be prepared on recommendations of former Justice Rajinder Sachar, who highlighted the pitiful state of West Bengal’s Muslims. An Expert Review Committee to probe cases of political prisoners languishing in jails on false charges. A special development package for Jangalmahal, the details of which are yet to emerge. (She sidestepped the question of her government’s stand on Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and troop deployment. “I will let you know,” she said.) A Bango Sanskriti Utsav every two months to foster Indo-Bangladesh cultural exchange. An expert committee — Jol Dhoro, Jol Bhoro — to conserve water for irrigation, to find ways to use rainwater and flood waters constructively. A separate committee to monitor BPL cards and MGNREGA implementation. The creation of two new ministries: North Bengal Development and Inland Waterways. Sunderban development, previously under the sports minister, will now have a separate head.
Utilities like drainage, roads, streetlights, water supply – at present under a range of acronyms — will be brought under the Kolkata Municipal Corporation. This means that for all civic problems, the buck stops with Mayor Sovan Chatterjee, Banerjee’s close confidant.
She did not forget her middle-class base either. In keeping with the TMC’s stated vision of turning “Kolkata into London”, the Hooghly riverfront is in for a facelift. There are plans to create a Kolkata square that will house the mayor’s chambers, a literary square opposite Eden Gardens, an open-air theatre, and a three-tier walkway for joggers along the riverfront.
As a TMC source says: Rule No 1: Didi can do no wrong. Rule No 2: If you think she is wrong, see Rule No 1
And then there are the alarm bells: In a Mamata-esque move, the chief minister chose to keep nine key ministries with herself: home, agriculture, land and land reforms, health, power, information and cultural affairs, hill affairs, minority affairs and madrassa education, personnel and administrative reforms. For all the elation about women’s power, her Cabinet has only one other woman — Women and Child Development Minister Sabitri Mitra. Morever, Banerjee’s portfolio allocation has surprised many in the party.
Former Kolkata Municipal Corporation Mayor Subrata Mukherjee has been allotted public health engineering. Sudarshan Ghosh Dastidar, a renowned doctor, has environment. Instead of the expected law ministry, former Calcutta High Court Justice Noor-e-Alam Chowdhury has bagged the animal resources development department.
One explanation among party sources is that Banerjee does not want anyone to have too much power. Another is that she doesn’t want anyone to get complacent — handling ministries within their field of expertise would apparently make them. A third explanation is that there is no explanation.
A TMC source puts it best. Rule No. 1: Didi can do no wrong. Rule No. 2: If you think Didi is wrong, see Rule No. 1.
That is why despite the euphoric cheer on 20 May, there are alarm bells too. Already there are CPM allegations: police is not registering complaints against TMC workers harassing CPM activists, they say. Already there is infighting among the TMC ministers. Who gets to stand beside Didi when she meets the press? Who gets to escort her on ribbon-cutting ceremonies? Who gets to travel in her car?
The real measure of the work culture that Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has triggered in her first 48 hours in office will be how independent her officers are, how her own ministers assess their self-worth.
If poriborton is to come, that assessment cannot depend on who wins the back-row seats in a black Santro swirling across Kolkata.
Tusha Mittal is a Principal Correspondent with Tehelka.