Mamata Banerjee. Didi to her fans, possibly a deity in her own view, and simply ‘dei’ to those in South India. The leader of the Trinamool Congress, and Chief Minister of West Bengal since ousting the Marxists in 2011, Banerjee currently heads a rabble of bizarrely behaved and varyingly inappropriate Indian political leaders. If you follow Indian politics with even the most passing curiosity, you’ll know that this is quite a feat: there are the money-launderers A Raja and Suresh Kalmadi, the porn-watchers Lakshman Savadi, CC Patil and Krishna Palemar, and the falling star Rahul Gandhi, among a hundred others. In a nation that leaps almost daily from one political scandal to the next, Banerjee’s staying power is impressive.
Since taking office, Banerjee has set about remaking the state of West Bengal in her own image. She’s already changed its official name from West Bengal to Paschim Banga, leading to widespread frustration and ridicule. She’s also sacked her own party’s Railways Minister Dinesh Trivedi for announcing a fare hike in the 2012 Rail Budget, which was supported by all five of India’s rail unions (Banerjee then rolled fares back). And just over a week ago, she had Jadavpur University professor Ambikesh Mahapatra arrested for circulating derogatory cartoons about her.
Some have called Banerjee a ‘megalomaniac’; others have suggested she is establishing a ‘dictatorship’. Now, after repeatedly accusing the media of a bias against her party, Banerjee has announced plans to set up a government-run TV channel and newspaper, to be called Paschim Banga and Dainik Paschim Banga respectively. She promises they will offer “correct information”, unlike “two-three TV channels of the CPM that you should not watch”. Way to put those ‘megalomaniac dictator’ claims to bed, Didi.
I wonder, what would comprehensive Banerjeevision on your newsstands and TV sets comprise? One thing’s for sure: it certainly won’t be in English, as Mamata Banerjee has banned all English newspapers from West Bengal’s state libraries. In a country for which English is about as close as you can get to an all-inclusive national language, that decision certainly added momentum to what looks to be her march towards preposterous isolation.
There’s a spanner in the works there, though: she banned all political-party-affiliated newspapers, too. So it’s irrelevant. Dainik Paschim Banga will not sit alongside Dainik Statesman in West Bengal’s public libraries. No, a better indicator of Banerjee’s disdain for English is in the way she disregarded its conventions in a recent speech. Mind you, she also showed little regard for geography either:
“Bengal is a foundation state for the northeastern countries [sic] and also I believe that Bengal is a border of Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh is the border of Pakistan [sic]. If you want to see the investment in Bangladesh, if you invest in Bengal, the automatically [sic] the Bangladesh will be benefitted.”
It’s easy to take pot shots at someone for their poor command of language, and I generally refrain from doing so, but Banerjee is different. The semantic and grammatical errors in her speech aren’t really a problem (though they do sound funny coming from a leader of millions). It’s the fact that Banerjee is also actively widening her censorship net in West Bengal, tightening her fundamentalist Bengali grip on more and more of a state that used to be India’s literary pride and joy. First she limited access to publications she found to be biased against her; now she’s written them all off and chosen to impact the media narrative by instituting her own vetted mouthpiece.
Put in the context of cartoonists being thrown in jail, Banerjeevision is no laughing matter, and I suspect its content won’t be as easy to write off as her speechmaking abilities in English. The core of the issue is that Banerjee, after years in opposition, is so used to being in a corner that she still lashes out at naysayers despite an overwhelming voter mandate (184 out of 294 seats). Combine that with her massive ego and you have a juggernaut of exaggerated defensiveness - which at present appears only to be picking up pace.
Photo credit: Al Jazeera