Mamata Banerjee walks into a shop in small town West Bengal and asks for an ice cream cone. “We have no cone, madam, only a stick,” the shopkeeper says nervously.
“What sort of shop is this? All right, then, give me a stick.”
The shopkeeper brings her an orange ice; it’s more like red actually. She’s annoyed and snaps, “No, I want chocolate.”
The man is apologetic. “Madam, we only have orange now. New supply has not come. We cannot keep too much because power cut is so long these days.”

“What! How dare you? Arrest this man,” she orders her security detail. “He’s a Maoist, see he only keeps one colour of ice cream. And see that balloon outside his shop? It’s red, a code for his faith and his real masters. And his neighbour? He’s displaying a red dress in the shop window. In fact, close down the entire street. Investigate everyone. We can’t allow this Maoist menace in our sacred land.”

When rhetoric starts to masquerade as reason the truth cannot prevail. That’s been her point all along, but unfortunately it takes her a long time to convince people. See how long it took her to get them to recognise that Big Red was actually Bad Red. People fail to recognise the solid core of reason behind all that passion.

Improbable? Yes. Impossible? Under West Bengal’s first woman chief minister the sky does seem to be the limit. In that respect, at least, she’s kept faith with her campaign promise. And there’s no doubt that she’s bringing change to the state. If some people don’t like it, that’s just too bad. After all, you can’t please everyone every time. She’s only human.

The real problem is that while people are quick to criticise her hair-trigger reflexes few take the trouble to understand where she’s coming from. Secondly, she seems to have the knack of displeasing precisely those people who can make a noise louder than her, in a manner of speaking. Take that professor, what’s his name, who drew those toxic cartoons of the state’s duly anointed leader and circulated them on the Internet. That’s spreading hate and calumny under any name but see what happened when the government arrested him.

A lot of bleeding hearts who had never heard of the man before started bellyaching about freedom of expression and all that. They kicked up such a racket that it drowned out any hope of rational debate and the man had to be released. In the circumstances, of course, the investigation had to be called off and so she lost a great chance to get at the truth.

When rhetoric starts to masquerade as reason the truth cannot prevail. That’s been her point all along, but unfortunately it takes her a long time to convince people. They don’t listen. See how long it took her to get them to recognise that Big Red was actually Bad Red. People fail to recognise the solid core of reason behind all that passion.

That vehemence is informed by her conviction that she has the truth, the political variety at any rate, but it scares people, the aam janata as they are also known. They can’t usually be bothered to find out for themselves but won’t accept the word of another person who has actually found it. They just don’t give her enough respect on that score. And they don’t want to make too many choices on any given day, but here is a woman asking, no, demanding that they choose. It’s no wonder that they turn hostile. Abstract commitments of this kind are usually too much like hard work.

That’s another thing. Part of her impatience is directed at this take-it-easy policy. One thing that no can deny Mamata is her capacity for the hard slog. On the other hand, few would deny that most of us are shirkers. We rarely follow the old saw about “a stitch in time”. That’s why so many of us carry life-long wounds that never heal properly. So the chief minister gets ticked off when she hears complaints from people who seem to do nothing more than sit on their backsides. In Bengal, even more so in Kolkata, it’s almost the default position of the average individual, especially after the advent of the communists.

In their defence, however, it must be said that Bengalis are universally acknowledged as thinkers. It’s easier to do that from a seated position, as perhaps in a coffee house. No one ever stood at a Greek symposium and that, as everyone will agree, was the ultimate in intellectual discourse. Closer to our times we have Rodin’s celebrated “Penseur”. He too is sitting down as he ruminates. The point is repose does not necessarily denote inaction, nor the racer’s crouch an absence of deliberation. This irritant is therefore no more than a pardonable misunderstanding between action incarnate and thought personified. It can be resolved if someone makes the effort. But it may go deeper than that, given Mamata’s record.

She’s been busy all her life, with her shoulder to the wheel ever since she declared war on Big Red. She needed both commitment and a fierce self-belief to get her through those hard times. For a long time she seemed to be the only person who felt the red tide could be reversed. She was right. So now if she sees red at the first sign of opposition it’s because of the memories of those bad old days when everyone laughed at her as she bent unwearyingly at her Sisyphean task, while the softies scoffed and sipped coffee with the enemy.

There was a price to be paid, of course. Her titanic struggle has left Mamata in something of a rut; she may seem prey to monomania at times. But that’s also because she’s not resting on her laurels. The enemy is down but not out. If she sees red everywhere it’s because, as the late Senator Joseph McCarthy discovered for himself, they have a hundred artful disguises, each more plausible than the other, to camouflage themselves as they go about undermining and overturning her agenda. She sees what the others can’t or won’t. So her impatience with opponents could be merely a well-founded apprehension at the general failure to recognise the red signal.

Not everyone agrees with this line of reasoning, however. There’s a school of thought that believes she’s suffering from a version of the Right Man syndrome. Briefly, this is something the novelist A E Van Vogt came across while he was studying male authoritarian behaviour for his 1954 novel The Violent Man.

The philosopher Colin Wilson notes in his book The Criminal History of Mankind (1982):
“He [Van Vogt] was intrigued by the number of divorce cases in which habitually unfaithful husbands expected total fidelity from their wives; such a husband might flaunt his own infidelities, while erupting into murderous violence if his wife so much as smiled at another man… they could not bear to be contradicted or shown to be in the wrong; this also threatened their image of themselves as a kind of god or superman.

“If confronted with proof of their own fallibility, they would explode into violence rather than acknowledge that they had made a mistake… To his colleagues at work, he might appear perfectly normal and balanced; but his family knew him as a kind of paranoid dictator.

The Violent Man was set in a Chinese prison camp. The commandant is one of those savagely authoritarian figures who would instantly, and without hesitation, order the execution of anyone who challenges his authority.

“Van Vogt was creating the type from observation of men like Hitler and Stalin. And, as he thought about the murderous behaviour of the commandant, he found himself wondering: ‘What could motivate a man like that?’ Why is it that some men believe that anyone who contradicts them is either dishonest or downright wicked? Do they really believe, in their heart of hearts, that they are gods who are incapable of being fallible? If so are, are they in some sense insane, like a man who thinks he is Julius Caesar?” 

The Internet website Phinnweb (in 2004) further discusses Wilson’s insights into the Right Man. “Right Men can be domestic household tyrants terrorising their families but they can be found in all fields of life: in business, politics, art, culture. Everyone must have encountered one: a dominating boss, school headmaster or teacher, army officer, father, son, boyfriend, bully.

“Essential here is that the “Right Man” must always have his way and is afraid of losing face above all (“How dare you talk to me this way?”):… And if things don’t exactly go his way, he may scare people into submission by outbursts of rage or downright violence… Wilson also points out that there are “Right Women” too, so this is not exclusively male behaviour.


“The central characteristic of the Right Woman is the same as that of the Right Man: that she is convinced that having her own way is a law of nature, and that anyone who opposes this deserves the harshest possible treatment. It is the god (or goddess) syndrome.” 

At first sight, this recital is familiar, but it also has the smell of another of those plausible red herrings floated by academics of a certain persuasion. It’s so easy to weave a learned-sounding case and dismiss a hard-working politician as an insecure psychotic with a persecution complex. That trivialises her role in reversing the red tide and mocks the scars won in honourable battle. But this is not a person who admits defeat (so unlike certain unnamed brats with a sense of entitlement), so the other side had better watch out.

It’s important to remember that Mamata Banerjee has not come by her position through an accident of birth, high-placed friends or a stroke of fortune. It has been conferred on her by the divine rite of democracy, election. She is chief minister by popular anointment not private appointment, and that is why she guards that halo of divinity so jealously. It’s a gift of the people and must be guarded from random insult. In her fervour, however, there is also a weakness. Interested parties could twist that honest indignation into something far more sinister. Indeed, they’re hard at work already, if the sonorous editorials in so many publications are any indication.

Perhaps more than anything she needs to be less candid, more diplomatic, especially where dealings with the aam aadmi are concerned. Maybe she shouldn’t order the arrest of people who ask questions at public rallies. Perhaps it would be better to have a friendly word at a re-education camp in a quiet part of the state, away from prying media lenses. Whatever the motive, she would be better served by showing patience with people of little understanding. It’s people like this who anointed her, and they could take away the divine oil four years from now.

Giving advice to an elected politician on how to keep the public trust could be a redundancy but it may do no harm to keep this variation on the words of Abraham Lincoln (with profound apologies to his shade) in mind: You can piss off some of the people for all time, and you can piss off all of the people for some time, but you’d better not piss off all the people for all time.

This will be easier said than done, given that the media seems to be after her blood, magnifying every little slip through a distorting lens, but that is the challenge here, to win the peace after winning the war. And a challenge is exactly what galvanises Mamata Banerjee to do her best.

Perhaps, and this is a suggestion advanced with a certain diffidence, she should also refrain from painting the city blue. Red, we know, is a bad word and a foul colour, but blue denotes sadness in Jazz, which Kolkata has embraced with such joy.

It might be a counter-productive hue even though no one has yet composed the Bengal Blues (perhaps discretion is still the better part of valour). A city that looks like a Sanjay Leela Bhansali movie set could lead to public depression and people staying away from the ballot box, just as they stayed away from the Saawariya box office.