Last week in West Bengal doctors and other medical professionals went on a strike following an attack on a junior (intern) doctor at a government hospital in Kolkata. He was beaten up by the relatives and friends of a 75-year-old patient who died while during treatment. The striking doctors demanded professional safety while going about their job. That the patient in question was a Muslim immediately lent it a religious connotation.
Mamata Banerjee, who has a post-graduate degree in Islamic history, is known to depend on that community for survival. She is Hindu, but emphatically secular. About 27 per cent of the 100 million population in West Bengal are Muslims. The strike (which was set to be called off after Mamata agreed to the demands on Monday) spread to other cities such as Delhi and Pune.
At first, the populist cause had seemed to be on the side of the patient who died. It is perhaps just a tangential point that Mamata’s father had died from lack of medical treatment when she was only 17. Within a week, then — a longtime in headlines — the even more populist cause had turned out to be the crumbling public health.
In the recent general elections, the ruling BJP had won a historic 18 seats out of a total of 42 from West Bengal. The chief strategist of the party, and the current Home Minister, Amit Shah, has said several times and in public that it is his intention to install his party in power in the state assembly elections of 2021.
In the last one, Mamata engineered a landslide victory, displacing the communists who were in power in West Bengal for nearly 35 years. She had at that point already broken away from her mother party, the Indian National Congress, and formed her own organisation, the Trinamool Congress Party (TMC).
It is precisely this party’s fate which hangs in the balance with every issue, little or big, in West Bengal. The business and industrial health in the state continue to be middling. Public finances are in deep trouble. Political protectionism and patronage, by all accounts, flourish. And Mamata continues to be a vengeful populist, a kind of Statue of Liberty holding on, not to a burning torch, but a sputtering candle.
Playing the victim
Mamata has been in politics since the age of 15 — her career began as a young Congress worker. She seems to have found an archetypal ally in victimhood, which, in these days of identity politics sells well, politically, socially, and in gender terms.
Since Mamata’s victimhood traverses many concentric circles, the liberals, who form the righteous spine of the opinion industry as reflected in the Indian social media, are at a loss as to how to evaluate Mamata’s frenzied reactions— somewhat akin to a spirit possessed— and pass a judgement. Because Mamata is so visibly progressive, a liberal critique runs the risk of being stamped reactionary.
In May, for instance, a young BJP activist in Kolkata had morphed a witch-like hairdo — a rather inexplicable act of fashion that actress Priyanka Chopra had found fit to try on in a New York do — to wicked comic effect; the lady was arrested and put in jail for 10 days before being granted bail.
Last fortnight, BJP activists chanted, unnecessarily loudly, no doubt, Jai Sri Ram, in praise of the Hindu deity, and Mamata stepped out of her car on to the road to confront them, all quite dramatically; dramatically to the point indeed of hysteria. If a male politician did what Mamata is wont to do, every day would be his last.
Poetry without substance
Mamata is a poet and a painter. Her paintings are not much to speak of. Mother and child, portraits of women, are recurring themes, all rendered without any pretence to style or artistic substance. Her poetry mostly yearns for inner peace and stillness. In translation, they do not merit attention. The longing for peace is just that: after her party’s election debacle last month, she offered to resign as the chief minister; but since she is the president of her own party, the gesture of renunciation did not mean much, just like her poetry.
The current medical strike will pass into history. And things will return to normal. But normal is a relative term. Indeed, under Mamata, normal is just a fluid, deceptive degree above chaos. She likes it that way. That is how she controls the state’s politics. Except that the BJP is now threatening it, bringing a kind of order by consolidating the majority Hindu votes over class and party lines, and threatening Mamata’s brand of politics.
The state is certain to figure increasingly in the headlines as ideology vacuums itself out and populist slogans and identity politics seep into the vacated space. For all her theatricality, Mamata is a very shrewd politician. She knows only too well that the victimhood she wears is another guise for thuggery; a thuggery perhaps of sentiments. Until Indian pundits and media develop a new set of diagnostic tools, West Bengal will remain in the ICU even if the doctors change.
C.P. Surendran is a senior journalist based in India.