Known for her indefatigable energy, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has been crisscrossing the state, reaching out to the remotest corners since she came to power 33 months ago. But there is a sprawling white building in the heart of the city - the state assembly - where her rare attendances are raising hackles among the opposition.
Since taking the oath of the high office in May 2011, Banerjee has made it a routine affair to tour the districts zealously, accompanied by all top ministers and officials, hold development meetings in the sub-divisions, and distribute government largesse like cycles, scholarships and grants herself. She also lays the foundation stone of a large number of projects, and launches new schemes, a dime a dozen on every trip.
Take the case of northern West Bengal, which includes the traditional trouble spot of Darjeeling. By Banerjee's own admission, she has undertaken 26 visits to North Bengal as the chief minister "to take stock of the progress" of development projects. Her government has set up a new secretariat "Uttarkanya" in Jalpaiguri, with the declared aim of catering to the need of the people living in the northern part of the state. The chief minister inaugurated a two-storey green building Jan 20, and the first ever cabinet meeting was held this month.
Banerjee has promised to sit at her office in Uttarkanya every month, so as to "remove the sense of deprivation" among the people of the region. Banerjee has visited another flashpoint, the Maoist-hit Jangalmahal - comprising large forested stretches of West Midnapore, Purulia and Bankura districts - with utmost regularity, doling out rice at Rs.2 a kg, and announcing other sops for the tribals.
Once a hotbed of red ultra activities, the zone has been peaceful for months now.
In January, Banerjee became perhaps first chief minister to visit West Midnapore district's Amlashole - where starvation deaths of five tribals had drawn international media attention in 2004 when the Left Front was at the helm of the state. The chief minister's district tours recently earned praise from none other than state governor MK Narayanan. Delivering his customary annual address to the legislative assembly, Bengal's first citizen commended Banerjee for "setting a record of conducting district tours" by visiting all the 19 districts of the state thrice in 33 months.
Ironically, Narayanan's applause for Banerjee came at a venue where her frequent absence has been a subject of debate. "During the over two and a half years of governance, she has not even answered two and half questions from the assembly members. She regularly skips the House on Fridays, when she is scheduled to reply to questions about her departments," said Leader of the Opposition Surjya Kanta Mishra.
The veteran Communist Party of India- Marxist leader has been raising the issue for over two years, calling it a glaring instance of Banerjee's scant respect for the opposition and democratic traditions.
In the ongoing budget session, the chief minister has attended the assembly only on the day of the governor's address. She has remained busy with district tours on the other four days. And even on the day when she was present in the House, Banerjee courted a controversy by arriving late, after the national anthem had been played. Though she immediately apologised to the governor, Mishra termed the late arrival of the chief minister as "unprecedented". "No chief minister before her, has behaved like this," he said.
According to assembly convention, the governor is escorted to his seat from the door by the speaker and the retinue of the secretariat, while the council of ministers, led by the chief minister, remains standing till playing of the anthem gets over.
Parliamentary Affairs Minister Partha Chatterjee, however, was quick to come to Banerjee's rescue. He claimed that the governor had entered the assembly four minutes before the scheduled time, and consequently the anthem was played early. "Otherwise, our chief minister is very punctual".
But the way the business of the House has been fixed, Banerjee would not have to reply to any of the questions during the brief session. While she skipped the assembly Friday, the chief minister would reply to the motion of thanks to the governor's address Monday, when again there will be no Question Hour. An irate opposition has threatened to boycott Banerjee's speech Monday. "She is boycotting the question hour. She does not reply to our question. I am sorry. We will also be forced to boycott her speech," said Mishra.