Despite her bouts of shrillness and polemical exaggeration, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has every right to be regarded as a serious politician. Having, almost single-handedly taken on and ousted the left from its established citadels in the State, and having won two consecutive State Assembly elections, the lady has established herself as a politician of consequence. Moreover, as her Trinamool Congress MPs demonstrated in Parliament in the non-functioning Winter Session, the representatives from West Bengal can set the agenda for the main Opposition, particularly the rudderless Congress.
Didi’s opposition to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s demonetisation has been total and unequivocal. Unlike various other parties that hedged their bets on the idea of demonetisation and focussed their ire on the process of implementation, Mamata’s opposition was total. She demanded a complete rollback, plastered Kolkata with banners proclaiming “Modi hatao”, toured various States to rally the anti-demonetisation forces and, finally, decided to block the progress of the Goods and Services Tax.
It is unlikely that Mamata’s opposition to the scrapping of the old Rs500 and Rs1,000 banknotes was guided by the familiar status quo logic of not tampering with a going concern. Nor can Mamata be said to enjoy any excessively cosy relationship with the financial twilight zone that, for reasons that are still not fully grasped, made Kolkata its epicentre. Despite the much-publicised scams involving the cheating of small depositors in eastern India, politics in West Bengal remains relatively low cost. Political venality is limited to incidents of extortion by local unemployed youth that use the Trinamool Congress flag as their protection. Earlier, these very same people draped themselves in the red flag for protection.
It would seem that Mamata’s fierce opposition to demonetisation has been propelled by two factors. First, as a grassroots politician she was more than aware that West Bengal was more dependent on cash transactions than most other States. This relative ‘backwardness’ had a great deal to do with the progressive decimation of the organised sector and the steady process of de-industrialisation in the State. West Bengal is probably the only corner of India that has something remotely resembling rust belts. Mamata is not responsible for this grim state of affairs but neither has she done anything meaningful to reverse the process of decline.
Secondly, following the growing sense of drift in the Congress and the inability of Rahul Gandhi to make a mark, Mamata detected a void in the all-India Opposition space. This is not to suggest that Mamata seriously believed that her Trinamool Congress could expand into neighbouring States and challenge the regional parties that play important roles in States such as Bihar and Odisha. I think Mamata was positioning herself as an all-India politician who is acceptable to various regional outfits and who also enjoys a great deal of credibility among Muslim voters. In short, with an eye on the 2019 general election, Mamata was playing the old game of being a possible candidate for the top all-India slot in the event of a hotch-potch, fractured verdict.
This is not the occasion to assess the success or otherwise of Mamata’s foray into national politics. More than the energy she has expended in trying to whip up an anti-Modi frenzy, her report card will depend quite substantially on the speed at which cash supply normalcy is restored and the extent to which economic growth takes a hit. Early indications suggest that Modi’s opponents (political, intellectual and the media) may have over-estimated both the quantum of popular resentment and the extent of economic dislocation. However, it is best to wait a little before coming to any conclusion.
Whatever the larger consequence of demonetisation and the battle to purify the soul of India, the consequences for West Bengal are worth exploring. Anecdotal experience and media reports indicate that the period of cash shortages was utilised by a large number of individuals and businesses to move to plastic or mobile-based transactions, thereby reducing the need for cash. This transition has been dramatic in some States and patchy in others. The quantum of progress has also depended on the encouragement given to the process by State Governments, in conjunction with the banks.
West Bengal, quite tragically, has witnessed very little movement in the direction of cashless existence. Mamata could hardly have been expected to demand a rollback on the one hand and simultaneously propagate the virtues of BHIM or Paytm. Individuals may have taken the initiative in moving towards low-cash life but there has been zero encouragement or even publicity of the exercise by the State Government. At times it has almost seemed that West Bengal is living in a country of its own.
It is difficult to gauge the political consequences of this indifference-cum-hostility of the State Government. If she finds it is not yielding the necessary returns, Mamata is just as capable of doing a total U-turn and moving — as the left used to do — from “correctness to correctness”. Yet, there is going to be a larger casualty of the Trinamool Congress’ adventurism. Having already moved down in the economic league of States, West Bengal is likely to slide down further in the post-demonetisation world.
For the past few weeks a few silly (and mainly non-resident) academics have complained about the opponents of demonetisation being beleaguered and experiencing social media intimidation. The complaints are based on fictional accounts of Modi Raj. However, West Bengal is a perfect example of what happens when the discourse is entirely one-sided. The Bengali group-think has unsettled it in the past and is continuing to do so today.