Reading Mamata Banerjee
What her performance while presenting the 2011 rail budget means for her, and for us
If all goes well for Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee, this should be the last we’ll see of her for a while in New Delhi.
The 2011 Indian Railways Budget was not about the fares or the figures. No government hikes train fares to an extent where it hurts the parties announcing them. If they have to, it means the wolf is already at the door. So, the chances of Banerjee increasing fares two months or so before the West Bengal election were below zero.
The big news, therefore, is not that she didn’t hike fares.
Numbers are not Banerjee’s core efficiency. The balance sheets in Rail Bhavan must be pretty ordinary right now. Weeks before the Budget, the railway ministry put an end to spending because it had no money. So, Banerjee was not making grand pronouncements about her ministry. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh knows the money isn’t there. Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee knows it too. Congress President Sonia Gandhi doesn’t need to, and she probably doesn’t.
Banerjee’s bosses thus knew exactly what was coming. She announced new trains, more trips for some trains, reintroduced the double-decker air-conditioned trains on two high profile sectors, and then said more stuff intended for her core audience.
The people of West Bengal are Banerjee’s only audience now. She spoke of social revolution through the railways, which was an exaggeration. She talked of the tough times being over for the railways, which is a political lie. A political lie is where everyone knows it’s not true but no one makes a fuss about it. The implication is that any politician in place of the lying politician would have said the same.
The railways will have to borrow heavily from the market to keep going. Banerjee said they would. India has a job crisis on its hands. There are no jobs in the country and the railways have for ever been India’s largest employer. Banerjee said the railways would employ more people, 16,000 ex-servicemen straightaway. Plus, there are the routine works every year, which even at snail’s pace cost money.
Even if the railways earns over Rs 1,00,000 crore, there’s no way the railways can turn it around fast. Most of the money, almost all of it, would go into salary, pension and routine expenses.
The big story, therefore, is not about the plans Banerjee announced.
The real story of the rail budget is whether Banerjee is ready.
Unless something unseen happens, the Left Front in West Bengal is likely to pay the price for too much time and too little work at the top. As a consequence, Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress appears to be heading for an important victory in the May assembly election.
It’s not like, say, the AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) defeating the DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam), or vice-versa. There’s a déjà vu about such a victory. Banerjee, on the other hand, could mark a crucial moment in Indian politics. She might unseat the longest-serving elected Communist government on the planet. It could at the very least push mainstream Communism to the fringes in India.
At a time when extreme Communist parties like the CPI(Maoist) are gaining traction, the insignificance of the mainstream Left could open things for two pan-India fronts, the Congress-led and the BJP-led. This is the scale of what Banerjee may be on the verge of doing.
Even if Banerjee were to return to New Delhi after five years, it is unlikely that she would be given a ministry involving a budget presentation
She has to be prepared. Else, it can unravel rapidly.
On the evidence of her performance in the Lok Sabha, she is. Banerjee came looking like she had paid attention to her appearance. She had her hair coloured jet black. She had a chain around her neck, looking like it was made of gold. She draped a lemon yellow shawl. She was television-ready.
Then, there were her 90 minutes in the limelight. Schoolteacher mostly, admonishing and fraternising by turn, she began to scream on two occasions before she quickly lowered her volume. Not that the Opposition had anything much to pummel her with. The BJP seniors were indifferent. Others in the NDA cared even less. Only the back-benchers made pretence of shouting for a while.
It was a free run. It told us much about Banerjee. It told us she is sensing her moment. It told us she is willing to plunge into administrative minutiae, boring but important. It told us she is comfortable in the House.
It told us she knew this could be her last budget in New Delhi.
Should she win in West Bengal, she is a shoo-in for the chief minister’s post. The sheer momentousness of that could give her five honeymoon years. In West Bengal, it could even lead to another five years. But that is too far away.
Assuming Banerjee wins, she would need to quit the Union Cabinet. It is one reason why Manmohan Singh keeps talking of a big reshuffle of his team after the budget session of Parliament. The end of the budget session and the results of the West Bengal election are almost simultaneous events.
Even if Banerjee were to return to New Delhi after five years, it is unlikely that she would be given a ministry involving a budget presentation.
Just a short caution. In the long run, lies don’t pay. It makes no sense to make promises you know you can’t keep. West Bengal is not the Ministry of Railways.
But then, Banerjee always knew this.