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On short fuse
Mamata Banerjee’s rather alarming outbursts may not really be that spontaneous
If Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee seemed to strike a particularly shrill and impolite note earlier this week with her verbal 'bashing' of the Prime Minister, here is a prediction - she will only get shriller in the weeks and months to come. The crucial panchayat polls are scheduled for May this year and with little to show on the ground, Mamata is quite likely to sound angrier and even more desperate.
Soon after she came to power, Mamata demanded a moratorium on the repayment of the Rs 2. 07 lakh crore loan that had been incurred by the Left Front in its 34 years in power. But New Delhi had turned down her plea, citing fiscal norms and pointing out that conceding to her demand would open the floodgates for similar demands from other states. Instead, the Centre asked her to cut down on wasteful expenditure and raise revenue collection by increasing user charges on various facilities, while promising to work out a special financial package for the state. This promised package never came through for a variety of reasons. And after she walked out of UPA 2, all chances of any special consideration from New Delhi were dashed.
Bengal's finances are in a desperate state: debt servicing alone has touched Rs 26, 000 crore and will only increase. Even though revenue collection has gone up, it is not just enough to meet the yawning budget deficit. This has severely hindered the present state government's efforts to even allocate funds for many welfare and infrastructure projects. Mamata's argument is that the huge debt that Bengal is now burdened with has been incurred by her predecessors and she should not be expected to pay the cost for the Left's "sins". But this argument has no takers in New Delhi and among economists.
As for the Centre's advice to curb wasteful expenditure, the ever-populist Mamata has only observed it in contempt. Her propensity to hand out doles to all and sundry - the recurring allowances and grants of Rs 172 crore to 40, 000 imams and muezzins in the state, and Rs 41 crore to nearly 2, 400 clubs, are just two examples among many - and announce sops at the drop of a hat without even consulting the finance department has added to the state's woes.
Take the case of the Rs 40. 09 crore grant marked for sports clubs for "improvement of games and sports". Most of these clubs have little to show for this kind of investment. Ironically enough, the sports department's allocation for the specific purpose of "improvement of sports and games" this financial year is only Rs 14. 53 crore. Not only was this entire sum given to the clubs, an extra Rs 25. 56 crore from the sports department's other plan heads was diverted to the clubs.
Mamata seems to find it hard to stop this tide of populist measures. She has allowed herself to fall into a vicious trap: with little asset creation on the ground, she knows that sops, doles and other gimmicks are the only way to keep the masses happy. And the more her government fails to perform, the more she has to resort to such financially imprudent acts. And her attack on the central government will only increase and is likely to get more vicious.
The panchayat polls are, in a sense, more crucial to Mamata than the assembly or Lok Sabha polls since she has to oust the Left from the panchayats in order to complete her stranglehold on power. It was only through their grip on the panchayats that the Left could stay in power for so long in Bengal. Like the Left, Mamata also has little patience for what the urban middle and upper middle classes - the bourgeois in Left parlance - think or say. And that's why she doesn't observe the niceties and protocols that her position demands.
As for her core support group among the urban and semi-urban masses, they only cheer when Mamata wonders if she should thrash the Prime Minister for not granting her unreasonable wishes and they wholeheartedly believe her when she blames the Union government, the CPM, the Congress and the media (not always in that order) for Bengal's ills.
Expect more reckless fireworks from her.
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