The Pulse

West Bengal: A State in Need of Redemption

Under Mamata Banerjee, West Bengal continues to struggle politically and economically.

India’s eastern state of West Bengal made history in May 2011 when the All India Trinamool Congress, led by Mamata Banerjee, defeated the Left Front government that had ruled the state for 34 consecutive years. Two years later, however, Banerjee has disappointed many in the state, which has become a byword for backwardness and economic stagnancy over the past three decades.

In the latest of many unflattering reports on the state, media recently revealed that a number of cadres from the ruling party were allegedly involved in a bout of violence and vandalism on the campus of Presidency College in Kolkata.

The state was outraged over the large scale destruction to the campus as well as the violence against students, which included some threatening female students with rape. Students, professors and university leaders have taken to the streets in protest, demanding that the purported culprits be held legally responsible.

According to reports, the accused Trinamool members attacked the campus in retaliation for the heckling of Banerjee and West Bengal’s Finance Minister Amit Mitra in New Delhi on April 9 by activists from the Student Federation of India (SFI), a student wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI-M). The student protestors were angered by the death of an SFI leader in West Bengali police custody on April 2. Banerjee called the death “petty,” angering the students.

Political violence has been a reality in the state for quite some time, dating back to the 34-year reign of the Left Front government. Although many hoped that the Trinamool Congress would change this, the party has instead become a paragon of political intolerance.

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According to an article in the Indian Express, the enormous political upheaval that resulted from the Trinamool Congress uprooting the Left from power has not brought the kind of changes many hoped for. Instead, the old power structures and oppressive methods of rule have only changed hands. Furthermore, Banerjee demonstrates her proud sense of insecurity by branding the slightest dissent as Maoism. Last year a Jadavpur University professor was even arrested for circulating a picture poking fun at Banerjee and Railway Minister Mukul Roy.

The party’s mandate in 2011 was not only to usher in a new political culture, but also to reenergize the state’s stagnant economy. However, little work has gone into changing West Bengal’s economic situation to date. Earlier this year, Banerjee held an investment summit in Kolkata, which failed to attract major investors, despite the fact that the area was once a leading industrial state in the pre-liberalization era.

While in power she has not made any significant attempts to change her image in the eyes of industrial leaders. Last year Banerjee withdrew her support from the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in Delhi on the issue of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in the retail sector.

If Banerjee is to spur positive change in West Bengal, she must address the parochial political outlook and economic stagnation going forward.