Kolkata: "Do you serve good tea? Please arrange tea for all of us." The person manning the grubby employees` canteen at Swasthya Bhavan was almost speechless as the customer was none other than West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, on an unannounced visit to see first-hand the state of affairs at the health department headquarters.
Banerjee, who holds the health portfolio, created a stir by suddenly descending there Tuesday, especially as her visit followed a series of surprise checks at leading city hospitals during which she had pulled up doctors and staff, and expressed dismay at the poor infrastructure.
The superintendent of a leading hospital was also placed under suspension for not cooperating with the Chief Minister who has laid top priority on improving services in state-run health facilities.
However, Banerjee shook off her image of a strict disciplinarian and employed a different tactic to win over the employees. The Chief Minister was all smiles as she told them: "You know, I like those very much who work. And please remember, that when I sit in my chair, I am just one of you. Everybody is the same to me, irrespective of political affiliation."
Only a day earlier, it was anything but a pleasant surprise for the new Chief Minister, who was greeted by mostly empty chairs a little before noon at the New Secretariat building that houses several key ministries like power and public health engineering.
It was almost noon, and many of the employees present had immersed themselves in newspapers or idle chatter. Some top officials were also yet to arrive when the Chief Minister paid the sudden visit as part of her endeavour to improve the work culture in West Bengal where the state administration has been regarded by locals as an embodiment of sloth for a long time.
"All of you please work sincerely," Banerjee told the power department employees before rounding up her 10-minute hurricane trip. She also holds the power portfolio.
She has, however, refused to come down hard on the employees. "The situation cannot be improved in a day. Things will not fall into place if I yell at them. We have to get work out of them through love and affection".
Less than a month after coming to power, Banerjee`s government took a big step towards restoring peace in the Darjeeling Hills by finalising a pact with the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha for creation of a new hill council with wider powers. The GJM has been fighting for three years for a separate state of Gorkhaland to be carved out of parts of north Bengal.
While news of the agreement triggered jubilation among the common people of the hills, Banerjee drew flak from various parties for the proposal to set up a committee to reconsider the GJM`s demand of including the Terai (plains) and Dooars (foothills of the Himalayas) region within the territory of the autonomous council.
But the issue that really showed the government in poor light was its decision to promulgate an ordinance to return 400 acres of land taken from farmers of Singur against their will for the Tata Motors Nano plant by the erstwhile Left Front government.
While Banerjee announced the decision on the ordinance at the state secretariat Thursday, she made a 180 degree volte face a day later after constitutional experts, lawyers and opposition parties said almost in a chorus that an ordinance could not be brought when the Assembly was in session.
Standing at exactly the same spot in the secretariat Friday, Banerjee had to eat her words and say her government would not enforce the ordinance but instead bring a bill in the Assembly session early this week to return the land to the farmers.
"I am not that conversant with the Assembly proceedings here. I have mainly worked in Parliament. So I know the parliamentary procedures well," she said, in an effort to hide her embarrassment.
The tea diplomacy, recce and goof ups apart, Banerjee took time off to spend a quality hour with 12 top rankers in the state secondary examination. She chatted with them like an elder sister (didi as she is affectionately called), and presented each of them a laptop, a copy of Rabindranath Tagore`s Geetanjali, a bouquet and a scarf.