Shika Mukerjee: Mamata dream sequence ends

01 Nov,2011

By Shikha Mukerjee

Like a grand infatuation that is pursuing its natural course towards an inevitable end, the heady, halcyon days of the media’s romance with Mamata Banerjee as the harbinger of “change” or “parivartan” are coming to an end. Sunday, October 30: the mainstream print media is showing distinct signs of doubt about Didi’s capacity to deliver on her promises; her announcement that for the next one month all her attention would be focused on “industry,” her “Diwali-gift” of projects to the people of West Bengal produced sceptical headlines.

Of the two dozen or so daily newspapers in Kolkata, the story of the Diwali gift or Industrial Revolution was the lead in many, the second or even third lead in some and appeared below the fold in a few rare exceptions. It is not a categorical imperative that Mamata’s initiatives on industrialisation must be the universal lead in every newspaper or even television. The Telegraph said, ‘A Diwali ‘gift’ but not so perfect’. The Times of India said, ‘Industry bonanza hits Singur hurdle’. The Ananda Bazar Patrika said, ‘Mamata takes the field to gain Industry’s confidence.’ Ekdin said, ‘Assurances of Industrial revolution in West Bengal to restore its golden past’. Pratidin said, ‘Now the Industrial Revolution.’ Bartamaan said, ‘Migration in search of jobs to end: Mamata.’

On television, especially the top five 24X7 Bangla news channels, more widely watched and consequently of greater significance in terms of reflecting popular sentiment, the story was listed a long way after news on crib deaths and the newest Maoist demands. National news channels insistently reported on the growing number of crib deaths and the failure of the political leadership, namely Mamata, to respond to the situation as an emergency.

A month or two earlier, no market savvy newspaper or television channel would have given a negative spin to any story featuring Mamata as the principal actor. By describing her Diwali gift as old projects repackaged as new, the newspapers are signalling that the romance is nearing its end. Some newspapers even listed which of the 10 projects that Mamata had announced as new initiatives had been sold to the public before. Some said that the list included so many public sector projects that the lack of interest of private investors was obvious. Some even quoted unnamed industrialists and public sector officials on why the list was a made up story of possibilities.

One strong indication of the romance going stale was a story in The Telegraph on October 21, ‘Mamataisms at the Crossroads’, that analysed and checked off the status of her initiatives on her priority issues during the long, long campaign against the Communist Party of India Marxist’s misrule and arrived at the conclusion that she had made little headway though many starts, even if most were false ones.  The clash between the suave and pedigreed Trinamool Congress finance minister Amit Mitra and the former less socially elite, but no less academically qualified finance minister Asim Dasgupta was a delicious play off in which Dr Dasgupta has certainly scored a bull’s eye. As the story appeared, it was evident that The Telegraph, The Ananda Bazar, Ekdin, The Times of India were all clued in on who would win the fight.

Assisted by the media, Dasgupta launched a methodical and technically sound demolition job on Mamata’s claims that a mere 6 per cent of the state’s money was available for development. The apparently academic point that Dasgupta made – on how the calculation was wrong – is in effect a lit fuse, politically. The positive play that Dasgupta received is the measure of the decline of Mamata’s magic in the media. The contrast is particularly striking because three months ago, when he made a similar point and was very critical that the new government had not presented a conventional budget, the media found ways of converting the criticism into the peeve of a loser. It dragged in seriously negative evaluations of his tenure as finance minister of the CPM government and quite openly jeered at him.

It is intriguing that whereas Dasgupta’s earlier salvos did not get any support from the popular band of economists, this broadside had several economists, including one or two known CPM baiters and Trinamool Congress admirers confirming the accuracy of the ex-finance minister’s statement.

In contrast, the very soft treatment that Mamata has received over crib deaths underscores her star quality.  The “failure” of the health system in tackling a crisis was played up in terms of the numbers of crib deaths at the BC Roy Memorial Hospital for Children. Media went out into the districts to find more instances of failure, in a show of initiative that indicates that the story has regained its own life instead of being a frame within which Mamata and her government are artfully displayed. But the media did not pick on her when she brushed aside questions at a press meet, declaring, “ask the health secretary” and “this is about industry”. Nor did it bay for her blood when she responded “What can I do.”

The quagmire in which negotiations with the Maoists have been stuck, the declining credibility of the negotiators, the revision of strategy for dealing with the obviously reinvigorated ultra Left has not led to direct criticism of Mamata, but it has produced a shift in treatment. Even though the media has not underlined the abrupt change in Mamata’s stand, from declaring “There are no Maoists-Phaoists in West Bengal” to calling them “supari-killers” and “cowards,” it has turned watchful and cautious about the chief minister’s capacity to handle the problem, classifying it as one of the “Mamataisms.”

Industry, finances, health, Maoists covers much of what Mamata promised as part of her Parivartan politics. By reserving judgment on the promises that she made – return of land to unwilling farmers of Singur, now mired in a legal battle, ending the Maoist problem, opening the doors to a flood of fresh investments, delivering better governance, extracting more money from the Centre – the media has played fair or even handled her with kid gloves. It has not clamoured for answers at the gradually but noticeably fewer press meets. She has not been cornered or pushed up against a wall.

In fact the media has been unusually, almost unethically, gentle in its interactions with Mamata Banerjee. It has tolerated, even after she became chief minister, the ferocious regulation of access that she exercises with the media. It has accepted with good grace the fact that there are some newspersons who have 24X7 access to her and that the rest have to depend on these select few for camera footage and reporting. The band of faithful is privy to the best footage at every photo-opportunity; they are welcome in her office and get interviews. The rest have to make do with crumbs cast their way. The absence of protest is, as one journalist said, a measure of her “charisma.”

Put differently, the news media cannot function without the crumbs because its audience or public remains loyal to the charismatic leader. No media publication or channel can afford to black out the things that Mamata does or says. No media channel can complain on air that it never gets a chance to interview the leader. No media channel can protest if a newsperson from another “house” sits in on an interview when it is finally granted. If after this prolonged discriminatory treatment the media has chosen to suck it up rather than raise a furore then it signals the popularity of Mamata Banerjee and the risk of annoying her. Therefore even when media persons privately complain bitterly about the “humiliation,” “discrimination” and “difficulty,” they have not as yet turned critical or even objectively analytical. The stories that the media does not report vastly outnumber the stories that it does; the discretion is exercised over what the public and positive image of Mamata can bear versus the stories that reveal the negative in terms of faults, whims, bad decisions.

A year back, the CPM government would have been excoriated if it had spun the funds available for development story in the manner in which Mamata presented her desperate case at the National Development Council meeting in New Delhi. It would have trashed stories about promised bailouts by the Centre, especially Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to the West Bengal government for reasons of political sympathy. It would have gleefully pointed out that the Centre’s failure to deliver on promises was a pointer to the declining clout of the political leadership of West Bengal. In other words, Mamata is getting the best deal that the media has ever offered to any member of the political establishment anywhere; it has suspended disbelief and meekly accepted its assigned role in the Mamata era, as a faithful purveyor of designer messages.


The writer is a senior journalist.



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