By Sirshendu Panth, Kolkata, Dec 28 IANS | 7 months ago

Former corporate lobbyist Amit Mitra seems to have emerged as West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee's most trusted lieutenant in the government. At least that is the conclusion one can draw from the latest the ministerial reshuffle.


Having shed his dark Western suits for the dhoti and panjabi (kurta) of a Bengali bhadralok to mark the changeover to politics after a long innings as secretary general of business body FICCI (Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry), the London School of Economics alumnus has displayed great adaptive abilities to upstage seasoned players in the new arena within only two and a half years.

Entrusted with the key finance and excise departments when Banerjee took over the reins of government in May, 2011, Mitra was the biggest gainer in this week's ministerial rejig. The 65-year-old bespectacled Mitra landed the plum industries, industrial reconstruction and public enterprise portfolios to add to the two ministries that are already under him.

It is a firm indication of Banerjee's increasing confidence in the Duke University Ph.D holder's ability to rope in big ticket investments she has been eyeing for a long time, but without much success.

However, to understand the full significance of his promotion, one needs to look at the profile of the man at whose cost Mitra gained.

Partha Chatterjee is a seasoned politician and a long-time Banerjee loyalist, who served as the leader of the opposition in the state assembly between 2006 and 2011. Chatterjee took the first lessons of politics as a college student, and has been Banerjee's number two in the cabinet so far.

Apart from industries, industrial reconstruction and public enterprises, Chatterjee has been holding the charge of information technology, and parliamentary affairs departments from day one of the Trinamool Congress government. Besides, he is the party's secretary general.

Why then did Banerjee clip the wings of such a formidable minister, reposing trust on Mitra - a political novice - instead? Though Banerjee claimed that the decision was taken to "lighten" Chatterjee's "load", so that he could devote more time for the party, her unhappiness with Chatterjee's functioning was being talked about for some time.

Matters reached a head when Banerjee reviewed the performance of all the departments Dec 20 and pulled up the industries' officials for non-utilisation of funds, failure to attract private capital and ensure speedy clearance of pending projects.

Chatterjee's fate was sealed that day itself. And the inevitable announcement only came Thursday, leaving him with only parliamentary affairs and IT.

On the contrary, Mitra has endeared himself to Banerjee by mopping up additional revenue - the collections have jumped by around 32 percent this fiscal. Besides, the shrewd economist seems to have quickly tuned himself to Banerjee's style of functioning.

Though known for his media-savvy image as FICCI secretary general, Mitra hardly interacts with reporters these days. Even during the rare media conferences, he is curt and keeps their durations short.

This seems to have gone down well with Banerjee, who likes her ministers to be reticent with the media, while she makes the major announcements.

But what really increased Mitra's stock with the chief minister, is the success of the media summit organised by the state government in August at Mumbai.

After the shoddy show in the absence of leading industrial magnets at two consecutive business summits organised in the state by Chatterjee's department, Banerjee assigned the task of getting the big names for the Mumbai event to Mitra. Using his one-and-half-decade experience as FICCI's face, Mitra assembled an impressive gathering that included the likes of Mukesh Ambani, Uday Kotak, Yogi Deveshwar and Adi Godrej.

Banerjee hopes that Mitra's personal rapport with the big industrialists, and his better understanding of their requirements would help the state get the investment it badly needs.

A section of businessmen also feel Mitra - with his vast knowledge of dealing with industrialists, and balancing the interests of rival capitalists - would be able to deliver the goods.

However, there are also sceptics who point out that managing such demanding portfolios like finance, excise and industry simultaneously may prove to be herculean task for a single man.

The opposition parties have expressed similar reservations.

"The chief minister has been making tall claims on the industrial front. Then why was the minister changed? Was she misleading the people so long about her government's performance?

"And I doubt if one man can handle so many portfolios together," said Left Front chairman Biman Bose.

State Congress chief Pradip Bhattacharya said the state needs to rethink its hands-off policy in acquiring private land for industries. "If you don't pursue the right policies, mere change of minister will not yield dividend."

(Sirshendu Panth can be contacted at s.panth@ians.in)

(Posted on 28-12-2013)