The lie of change

Jan 8, 2016
By Rudrangshu Mukherjee
The global business summit that begins today in West Bengal has set for itself a long and arduous climb. The meeting aims to mobilize business and investment for the state. Nothing in the present, whatever be the present's promise or pretensions to change, can be divorced from the past. "Time past and time present are both perhaps present in time future."
With that in mind, it is worth looking at the present government's track record in attracting investments. According to figures made available by the ministry of industries of the government of West Bengal, between 2011 and September 2015, Rs 6,871 crore was invested in West Bengal. By the processes of simple arithmetic this works out to Rs 1,374 crore per year. In the same period, Gujarat, which leads the field, received investments worth Rs 1,12,880 crore, that is, Rs 22,576 crore per year. The gap is surely more than numerical.
The gap, however, is not just between the investment figures of Gujarat and those of West Bengal. There is a more significant gap: between the actual figures of investments in West Bengal cited above and the claims made by the finance minister of the state, Amit Mitra. The latter's claim is that, over the last five years, around Rs 80,000 crore has been invested in West Bengal. These figures projected by Mr Mitra explain why delegates to the global summit - businessmen and potential investors - have a long and arduous climb ahead of them. They have to reach the peak of Rs 80,000 crore and then surpass it. The finance minister has brought the mountain before them. Their only comfort is that the mountain is an illusion: a figment of the minister's wishful thinking or, worse, of his dissembling.
Even without going into dry-as-dust statistics, the impression is unavoidable that West Bengal is starved of investments. Amartya Sen, who, as Mr Mitra himself will admit, knows a thing or two about economic growth and development and also about statistics, commented recently on the scarcity of investments in West Bengal. Industry has fled from West Bengal. This flight is not recent. A look back at what was happening in the 1990s will provide a glimpse of this flight. Between 1991 and 2000, when Jyoti Basu was the chief minister, the total investments amounted to Rs 17,580 crore; this figure improved slightly in the next decade, when, under Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, the state attracted an investment of Rs 48,104 crore. These were paltry amounts in the world of big business but nonetheless somewhat higher than the performance of the present government. What is much more important than the comparison between this government and the Left Front government is the undeniable conclusion that the investment outlook for West Bengal has been persistently gloomy. Capital does not see West Bengal as its preferred destination.
One crucial factor in this process of industrial decline is a particular kind of political practice that has come to dominate West Bengal. The practice began in the 1950s when West Bengal was under severe pressure in the aftermath of Partition and the influx of refugees. West Bengal became an economy of shortages: foodgrains, housing and jobs. The decade witnessed strikes, hartals, and mammoth political rallies at the forefront of which were tram workers, bank employees and students - all under the flag of the Communist Party. The politics of the street became the dominant mode of political activity. The focus shifted from the legislature and Writers' Buildings to the main thoroughfares. Calcutta saw large-scale destruction of public property, followed by police repression. Calcutta and, following it, the districts entered a vicious cycle of violence that became the hallmark of the state's political life. The pattern continued in more aggravated forms through the 1960s and the 1970s.
It was this violence and the politics of the street that propelled the Left, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), to power in West Bengal first in the late 1960s and then again for an inordinately longer period in the late 1970s. Apart from the violence the Left introduced another feature into Bengal's social and political life that was anathema to industry. This was irresponsible trade unionism. The historian, Edward Gibbon, recalling his Oxford days, commented that his tutor remembered he had a salary to collect but forgot he had a duty to perform. That comment could easily have been the description of what the trade unions institutionalized in West Bengal. Workers and government employees were guaranteed their pay packets and their annual bonuses irrespective of whether they did any work or not. Violence and a workforce that was reluctant to work and escalated its demands under political patronage ensured that capital never returned to West Bengal.
Once in power, the Left went about establishing its dominance and control in every sphere of Bengal's life - from the rural world to the university, from the bureaucracy to the police. The party replaced the government. Sycophancy replaced governance. Even though this lasted for three decades, realization dawned that this could not be permanent. An effort was made by Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, too short-lived but worth noting, to woo investment. There was the promise of a turnaround with the setting up of a small car factory by the Tatas in Singur.
This proved to be a turning point. The Tata project was destroyed by an agitation led by Mamata Banerjee whose cutting edge was anti-industry. In the wake of this agitation, she came to power with the promise of paribartan or change. Now at the fag end of her first term in office, it is clear that paribartan is a chimera. Nothing has changed in West Bengal. Violence has become an everyday affair, only this time around it is with the open connivance of the police. Party loyalists defy the law, boast of being murderers, threaten rape and defraud the common people. The entire administration kowtows to the chief minister who functions according to her own whims and fancies, often squandering the state's scarce monetary resources in acts of shameless populism. In all of these the present government treads the path made by the Left. Change is a change of names and colour.
Under these circumstances, tall claims regarding investment and substance-less rhetoric in a business summit only invites ridicule. Investors will demonstrate their faith in West Bengal not because of the misleading figures presented to them but when they are convinced that the nature of politics and governance have perceptibly changed in West Bengal.
The way to hell, to quote Virgil, is easy. It can also be paved with lies.
The Telegraph, January 8, 2016

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