India's ultimate populist

Mamata Banerjee loves doling out largesse at public functions, adding to the burden of an already debt-laden treasury.

    India's ultimate populist
    Two years in power, Banerjee's government has not been able to attract much investment [Reuters]
    "When you are unemployed, you will feel depressed. Don't sit at home, just go out and roam around on the streets, listen to music and chat with children. Try it and you will feel much better."

    This piece of advice to unemployed youths comes not from a trained psychiatrist, but from Mamata Banerjee, chief minister for the last two years of the eastern Indian state of West Bengal.

    The combative politician, who ousted the world's longest elected Communist government that had ruled West Bengal for more than three decades, is popular as "Didi" [elder sister], a matriarch with quick-fix solutions to complex problems.

    One in every eight people in West Bengal is registered as unemployed - 10 million out of the total population of 80 million.

    Job-creating investments in industries have been few and far between during both Banerjee’s tenure and those of her Communist predecessors.

    Her agitation against a proposed Communist acquisition of farmland at Singur, 40km from Kolkata, the state capital, drove away India's biggest corporate group, the Tatas, who had planned a car-manufacturing plant there to produce their much-touted affordable Nano car.
    The anti-land takeover campaign propelled Banerjee to power on peasant support, but industry analysts say it dampened investor confidence and drove away potential investors.
    Feel-good effect

    Two years in power and with several "roadshows" in India's financial capital Mumbai, Banerjee's government has not been able to attract much investments. But she is undeterred.
    Just before Bengal's biggest festival, the Durga Puja, Banerjee announced a string of populist schemes to spread the feel-good effect.

    One of them, Yuvashree, offers a monthly unemployment dole of Rs1,500 to 100,000 ($25-1623) young men and women who have cleared middle school (Class VIII) and are jobless. 
    The scheme will cost Banerjee's government Rs1,800m ($292m) a year.

    "This is a drop in the ocean because the scheme covers one in 100 unemployed. But it is a drop that helps spread the feeling that the government is doing something for the poor and the distressed," says Ranabir Sammadar, author of West Bengal: The Passive Revolution.

    He says Banerjee's style is "unabashedly populist" and she thrives on spontaneity to connect to the masses, unlike her doddering Communist predecessors.

    "Her own childhood amidst much poverty influences her political style. She is more into moves that works for the moment and is yet to pick up long-term strategising," Samaddar says.

    So when Banerjee launched Yuvashree, she walked into Kolkata's biggest indoor stadium with four local film stars in tow, all praising her to the skies.

    That works with the young people who had gathered to receive the first cheques as registered unemployed.

    It is not clear by when all the proposed 100,000 beneficiaries would be covered by the programme. Even the criteria for selecting them have not yet been finalised.
    'Feel-good effect'

    Critics say Banerjee's party bosses are monopolising the selections.

    But the ceremony to get the scheme off the ground had to be done in haste before the Durga Puja to generate the all-important "feel-good" effect.
    Just before Yuvashree, Banerjee's government had launched Kanyashree, a scheme to prevent early marriage of the child.
    It promises a monthly cash dole of Rs500 ($8.5) to girls from poor families, but on condition they should pursue education and are not married off until age 18.

    The scheme also provides for an one-time payment of Rs25,000 ($405) to the girl's family and can be used for her marriage.
    About 10,000 girls will now benefit from the plan, with many thousands more to be covered soon.
    Schemes such as these are to cost the West Bengal government at least Rs10bn a year ($162m) - and more if new ideas crop up.

    Passing the buck

    For a government with a huge debt burden and living almost hand-to-mouth to meet its payments and interest-servicing obligations, this is something not easy to handle.

    Something that Banerjee admits, but promptly passes the buck to her Amit Mitra, her finance minister, saying it is his job, not hers, to arrange for funds.

    "When Finance Minister Amit Mitra was told about the [Kanyashree] scheme, he said from where will the money come? I said you have to get funds. It is your responsibility to get the funds, not mine," Banerjee told those who attended the launch of Kanyashree.
    Mitra, a former head of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), the country's leading business chamber, finds himself in the hot seat.
    Mitra may not also say no to avoid upsetting his leader, but sources close to him say he does not get to enjoy his hard-earned gains through increased tax collections owing to populist schemes that seem to multiply all the time.

    Earlier in the year, Banerjee added 3,700 community groups to the government's list of beneficiaries to receive an annual dole of Rs200,000 ($3,246) each.

    This has put an additional expenditure burden of close to Rs1bn ($16.2m) this year.

    The scheme is now set to benefit nearly 6,000 such groups who get Rs200,000 in the first year and then half that amount for five years.
    The expanded list means the scheme will deplete the exchequer by about Rs2.5bn ($40.6m) a year, according to West Bengal finance department officials.

    Undeterred by criticism, Banerjee now wants her munificence to percolate to the masses.

    During the Durga Puja, she asked several government departments to patronise many community-festival organisers in the form of advertisements and donations.

    Furthermore, Durga Puja organisers with lavish budgets were asked by Banerjee to support "smaller Durga Puja" celebrations.

    Banerjee would turn up in dozens of Durga Puja pandals, often unannounced, to pray or launch the festivities.

    Responding to Banerjee's critics, Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar, a state legislator from Banerjee's Trinamul Congress party, said: "What is wrong with my leader reaching out to the masses when we have seen the Communists use these religious celebrations to sell their political literature, works of Marx and Lenin, for mass contact?"

    Even-handed populism

    No one can accuse Banerjee of favouring West Bengal's Hindu community, however, because her populist measures cover the state's religious minorities in good measure.

    What is wrong with my leader reaching out to the masses when we have seen the Communists use these religious celebrations to sell their political literature, works of Marx and Lenin, for mass contact?

    Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar, a state legislator 

    Recently the Calcutta High Court ordered her government to stop payment of a monthly stipend to thousands of imams and muezzins in the state.

    Since April last year, Banerjee's government had been paying more than 30,000 imams in the state Rs2,500 ($40) per month. The monthly payout to more than 15,000 muezzins was Rs1,500 ($24).

    The opposition has accused Banerjee of using the payments to pamper a key political constituency, Muslims, who accounted for more than one-fourth of West Bengal voters who supported the Trinamul Congress in recent elections.

    The court order was in response to four public-interest petitions filed in May last year, including one by the West Bengal unit of the BJP, seen as the political party of Hindu nationalists.

    Kanchan Chanda, the BJP's lawyer, alleged that the Calcutta High Court found that the state government did not even pass an order to pay muezzins their monthly handout but made the payments nevertheless.

    "So the court felt it was nothing but squandering of public money," he said.

    Muslim leaders are planning to challenge the verdict at the Supreme Court in New Delhi to get the payments restarted.

    "What Mamata Banerjee had done for the imams is absolutely correct. This order will be quashed definitely by the Supreme Court," Idris Ali, a lawyer close to Banerjee, said.

    One member of Banerjee's team, however, would be happy to see the court ruling upheld, albeit not for religious considerations.

    Mitra, the finance minister, recently said West Bengal's debt burden will swell to more than Rs2,000bn ($32.5bn) this year, with an embargo on payment on bills worth Rs35bn ($569.5bn), because of the financial mess left behind by the previous Communist government.

    Philosophically speaking, the extra money that Mitra's boss is splurging on the poor and the needy is indeed a "drop in the ocean", to use the author Samaddar's phrase, compared with the state's already gargantuan financial liabilities.

    This feature is a part of our ongoing special India coverage. To read more stories click here.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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