Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is now well into her second year at the helm of affairs in West Bengal. But it seems that Ms Banerjee has decided that whatever else may change about West Bengal, her populist style won't. Ms Banerjee’s crowd-pleasing ways, however, don’t always match the sort of crowd she’s facing. Last week, for example, at the Bengal Leads conclave of investors, she startled the crowd by asking the industrialist C K Dhanuka to come on stage and “sing a song”. Like a bossy aunt at a family party, she continued to insist till Mr Dhanuka was forced to oblige. Since Sanjiv Goenka, the vice-chairman of the Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation, also has interests in Saregama, the music company formerly known as the Gramophone Company of India, Ms Banerjee decided he should come up on stage to accompany Mr Dhanuka musically on the Tagore song Ekla Cholo Re’. Reportedly, Mr Goenka hummed along.
These farcical scenes are not as uncommon as many residents of West Bengal would prefer. Recently, Ms Banerjee paused in the middle of a public meeting to declaim mantras at a monkey wandering around on stage. At a speech last year, she startled her audience by assuring them that Bangladesh shared a border with Pakistan. And at both investors’ conclaves, last year and this year, she made various representatives of different companies stand up and wave at the crowds, pointing at them from the stage like a headmistress in school assembly. This year, however, this habit rebounded on her somewhat; it became clear to onlookers that participation had dipped considerably from last year, with many senior management personnel choosing to stay home, and foreign participation also less visible. Apparently it doesn’t work to treat company executives and promoters like sheepish schoolchildren.
The contrast with Gujarat’s mammoth and spectacular Vibrant Gujarat Summit was stark enough that Ms Banerjee was forced to play it down at the very start of her speech, talking of Gujarat’s long coastline. West Bengal had only two ports to Gujarat’s 17, she said, and then blamed the Centre for “neglecting” them. Of course, late last year, the private concessionaire at Haldia pulled out following accusations of intimidation by local Trinamool Congress toughs. In Gujarat, Ms Banerjee added, “there are no political obstructions.” Some might have supposed that Ms Banerjee’s distrust of capitalism and capitalists has been the main political obstruction to West Bengal’s development for some time now. Nor have her other ambitions helped her state much. Brinkmanship at the Centre, when her party was still part of the United Progressive Alliance, did not help West Bengal get additional Central funds. And the costs of leaving the UPA in high dudgeon are now becoming apparent. For example, many Central public-sector enterprises, crucial for upgrading West Bengal’s infrastructure, were conspicuous by their absence at Bengal Leads 2013.
Ms Banerjee’s long struggle against the Left Front government, which ruled for 34 years, unsurprisingly inculcated in her a belief that benefits would flow to West Bengal automatically from replacing it in power. Restarting industrial growth, however, is not quite as easy as all that. Perhaps that lesson is slowly being learnt — it is worth noting that aspects of her economic populism are perhaps less strident than they were even last year. For example, the Trinamool Congress’ reaction to the recent decision to raise diesel prices was muted — perhaps because the cash-strapped West Bengal government wants to hear no suggestions that it compensate consumers by reducing state fuel taxes. West Bengal’s road to recovery is long and winding. Ms Banerjee cannot afford to walk it alone.