THE two popular draws at any country fair are that of the fire-eater and the juggler. The biggest fair in our democratic country (India) is obviously politics, and it should be no surprise therefore when big crowds, led by an inexhaustible media, gather around any spectacle of fire-eating.
To watch one is always fascinating. To see two in competitive action is absolutely gripping. This political game is not simply about ‘my fire is bigger than yours’.
At its best, the competition also hinges around a moral axis: my fire is holier than yours. It will not only cook a much finer repast for the masses but, if you get the right Brahmins for the incantation, put you in touch with the gods of electoral victory.
Mamata Banerjee has been playing with fire ever since she stepped into public space. Her inborn skills have been honed by experience. She knows the innumerable intricacies of this inflammable art. At her best, she can leave scorched earth in her wake, denying fodder to the armies she has devastated — as the Marxists discovered at Nandigram.
She has patience. Over the last decade she lit one small bonfire after another all over Bengal and then waited as they, at their own pace and sometimes fanned by their own will, linked up to become a historic conflagration. The achievement was phenomenal, the applause international.
Then she became custodian of the House of Bengal. As any exhibitionist will tell you, fire-eating is best down out in open space, on soil and grass, under the sky. A fire-eater does not attempt this diet in his kitchen. The thatch is in danger. But Mamata has found it difficult to change her habits; she finds fire irresistible.
Mamata Banerjee is not a fool; and please underline not. She has learnt politics in the tough school of experience in a land where opposition seemed particularly hopeless. She rarely does anything that she cannot explain to the voter who put her in office.
However, she is getting disconcerted by the instruments of public life that have shifted the angle of their mirror now that she is in power.
Media, both symbol and reality of a contemporary crowd, lives by its own drugs. Complexity is of little use to television, which wanders across its firmament with a label in search of a fixture. Television survives on simplicity. Heroes and villains. Cops and robbers. Certainty is its strength. It does not much matter whether truth agrees with such certainty; it might, or it might not.
This is one of the many reasons why government-owned television is so boring. It is trapped between the glare of obedience and the fog of qualifications. Private television, responding to the needs of market stimulation, switches from hero to villain with the instant ease of electricity.
Mamata Banerjee is used to antagonists. She thrives on them. Sometimes she even makes an effort to create them, even when others are not particularly antagonistic, or at least would like to postpone a confrontation. But she has suddenly been outflanked by some heavy fire-eating, not to say fire-breathing, from behind her back, from among her own troops.
Dinesh Trivedi has done a Mamata Banerjee on Mamata Banerjee. I have no idea whether Dinesh Trivedi planned his strategy carefully, or whether he had reached that point of exhausted frustration with his leader, where you cannot care less about consequences. Perhaps it was 25 per cent of the former and 75 per cent of the latter.
We shall have to await his autobiography before we know the full truth, since while he has turned candour into a successful weapon he cannot take it too far.
What is certain is that Mamata Banerjee, concentrating as she has been on Marxists from the Left and Congress on the Right, has been completely flummoxed by this assault from the rear.
Worse, Dinesh Trivedi has, quite astutely, coated his assault with just the kind of morality that Mamata Banerjee keeps in her arsenal. He says, from every platform, that he is doing nothing for himself; that he has everything to lose from this confrontation; but he is fighting the good fight because it is the Right Thing To Do. Touché.
Perhaps Mamata Banerjee forgot two things about Trivedi. He was a member of V.P. Singh’s bandwagon in the late 1980s, and that wagon was fuelled solely by the gas of public morality as it challenged the steel of Rajiv Gandhi’s government. Second, Dinesh Trivedi plays bridge. He knows how to finesse.
Mamata Banerjee will not lose the game so easily; she still holds far more cards, including a range of trumps. She retains the populist card on fares. Trivedi’s constituency is the middle class, hers the poor. The Left, which understands, has supported her.
But something of the élan that Mamata Banerjee possessed is gone. She still holds Bengal, but she has probably lost a chunk of Calcutta.
The writer is editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, India on Sunday, published from London and editorial director, India Today and Headlines Today.