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India's Mamata Banerjee wields power, and some say not well

The chief minister of India's West Bengal state is considered one of the world's most powerful people. And, her critics would say, one of the most frustrating.

June 24, 2012|By Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times
  • Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of India's West Bengal state, leads a rally in Kolkata in May against a nationwide increase in gasoline prices. Such populist gestures are not uncommon for Banerjee.
Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of India's West Bengal state, leads… (Bikas Das, Associated Press )

KOLKATA  — Mamata Banerjee stares at you from buildings, overpasses, telephone poles and rail lines, wearing reading glasses and evoking Mother Teresa in one billboard, a square-jawed warrior girding for political battle in another.

Just over a year into her job, the 5-foot-tall, larger-than-life chief minister ofIndia'seastern West Bengal state is making waves, if not always the right kind.

Banerjee has been described as India'smost powerful — and mercurial — elected official, wielding inordinate clout over the nation's weak central government. Time magazine recently named her one of the world's 100 most powerful people, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited her on a trip to India last month before meeting with the prime minister.

But so far, Banerjee's power has been used more to frustrate than to forge policy. She killed an important water-sharing agreement with neighboring Bangladesh before a prime ministerial trip, blocked formation of a Department of Homeland Security-style agency after the 2008 attack on Mumbai and scotched economic reforms that would have allowed foreign retailers such asWal-Mart into India.

Her power is being sorely tested as she tries to turn around a near-moribund state after 34 years of Maoist party rule, one that discouraged investment and witnessed an exodus of jobs and talent to more economically vibrant parts of the country.

For decades, pulling strings with the right Maoist party comrade was deemed essential to securing even basic services. Meanwhile, Kolkata steadily crumbled, snubbed by construction cranes busy transforming the skylines of Mumbai, New Delhi and Bangalore.

When she took office in May 2011 after a landslide victory seen as a mandate for change, "Dragon Slayer" Banerjee was welcomed as a breath of fresh air who might return West Bengal's 93 million people to their rightful place in the Indian firmament.

She quickly set a new tone, eschewing the trappings of power by riding in a small black hatchback and rejecting the official mansion in favor of her modest two-story stucco house on a polluted canal near a red-light district.

"I see myself as a commoner," she said in an emailed response to questions.

Populism and brinkmanship aren't unusual in Indian politics. But her personal style has made big headlines, including her tendency to see "Maoist hands" behind every setback and, when criticized, to double down.

After a high-profile rape allegedly occurred at gunpoint in downtown Kolkata in February, she accused the woman of Maoist sympathies and of concocting the story to malign Banerjee's government. She also demoted a policewoman who supported the woman's account.

A Kolkata professor involved in a property dispute in April with members of Banerjee's Trinamool Congress party was accused of "cyber crimes" for forwarding an email containing a cartoon of her.

"I was dragged from the road by 10 to 12 goons, put in a chair, slapped and punched," chemistry professor Ambikesh Mahapatra said in his office at Jadavpur University. "I was pretty scared. I had to beg for my life."

And when a political science student asked Banerjee on television last month about questionable comments by members of her party, she leveled now-familiar Maoist charges before storming off the set.

"I'm not a Maoist; it's ridiculous," said student Taniya Bharadwaj. "She's a politician and is supposed to be able to answer questions. She took it personally."

"She's the single biggest impediment to economic reform in India," said Rudrangshu Mukherjee, opinion editor with the influential Telegraph newspaper. "But with all the criticism you can launch at her, she's an extremely cunning woman."

Banerjee, in her email, said that turning around decades of mismanagement takes time. She said she had hired more teachers and police, created e-governance initiatives to stem corruption, introduced public-private partnerships and encouraged tourism and investment. And despite media criticism, she said, most voters support her, a contention borne out by her party's strong showing in this month's municipal elections.

On Friday, however, the Calcutta High Court dealt her a significant political blow, ruling that her populist bid to return land to farmers acquired for a Tata Motors auto plant was unconstitutional.

The bad press she's received is predictable, she said, given vested interests of Maoists and others.

"They are trying hard to sabotage our multidimensional thrust for change and our effort towards the regeneration of Bengal," she wrote.

On a recent morning, a daily ritual unfolded as dozens of people entered her lane off Harish Chatterjee Street — passing through a security building better looking than her house — to petition her aides for help circumventing India's infamous bureaucracy. Her intended message by setting up this direct conduit: I'm on your side in battling the administrators.

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