POLITICAL PERSPECTIVES

There are no better examples of a polity that has continued to be elected for more than two and a half decades to hold the offices of a provincial democracy, concurrently maintaining its image as moderate Left on one hand and advocating for the free markets on the other, than what is intern in the State of West Bengal. There are examples of nations advocating, to a very limited extent though, somewhat reformed prophesies of the erstwhile Leftist ideas, as in China or Cuba, but not many examples exist where in a smaller part of a nation could insulate itself under an overwhelming influence of pro-left sentimentalities. The electorate have returned with whopping majority the same sentinels term after term, making the process of election look like a mere formality. No other viable opposition have come to terms with this all round phenomenon, although there have been minor squeamish with fighters of the likes of Mamata Banerjee, who could not hold on with a more concerted agenda to make a dent in the bastion of the Left.

Let us not delve into the reasons of this ubiquitous march or the enigma behind a promise that keeps on delivering short but finds it auguring well with the rural constituencies through the posturing of an agenda that is more political in nature than economic. The purpose of this paper is to see what had been the perspectives that led to the blooming of this force and what options it has for the future not only for itself but also for the people of West Bengal.

We do not need to go back to the Oxbridge days of neo-socialism, the Rajani Pam Dutt, et al, which catapulted the leftist lineage in India, which had a limiting influence on the freedom movement; the pre-independence ethos is being left out of the orbit of this discourse. But we may touch upon the conditions that led to the rise of leftist movement in West Bengal in the post independence era. It began with the trade unions in Railways, the Dock and the Eastern Coal fields, the three major pillars on which trade in West Bengal largely revolved around. Even post independence these were the three important employment providers where the bulk of the organized workers formed the Unions. This can well be compared with the organized labor in the Textile Mills in Maharashtra. The trade gradually moved to the West, with the growth of Maharashtra and Gujarat which came up to cater to the trade route for Oil from middle East and the importance of Oil over Coal diminished the status of West Bengal permanently. All the Chemical Industries including Petrochemicals got set up in the West for this primary reason. Heavy industries in Steel, Aluminum & Copper also got very limited importance in WB over U.P. Bihar and Orissa. Trade route also changed from Calcutta to Bombay, which was a logical fall out which further diminished the importance of West Bengal. This also needs to be seen in the back drop of the First Five Year Plan where in West Bengal did not actually get much of an importance apart from Durgapur, while down stream projects got scuttled into other areas which dampened the prospects of the development of the markets as well.

The governments in West Bengal in the post independence era did some remarkable job in creating towns that did not exist, around the quasi-industrial hubs, which gathered some momentum in increasing employability of people. Trade and commerce unfortunately alone could not bridge the gap between the rising numbers of unemployed and the opportunities that existed. The rural sector on the other hand posed an even compelling need for addressal of the same issue, but the huge land-less labor numbers multiplied the problem many fold. This is the time when the Left slowly made very deep in roads in the rural Bengal, quite unnoticed by the rest of the political fraternity, which today in hind sight is one of the primary reasons for their failure in garnering adequate support to form a viable alternative to the Left. While projects continued to be far and few in the period 1950 –1970, the fast growing middle class with its cultural and educational background found in the Leftist ideas something to look forward to. The war of Bangladesh and the huge immigrant infiltration into West Bengal also added fuel to this. The support bases of the Left extended from Trade Unions to Rural Bengal and also to the community of immigrants, the rising anti-establishment sentiments found orchestration in the Cultural & Student movement activities thus completing the entire gamut of political framework. The Naxalite movement which came up as a radical reaction to the disenchantment that was truly overwhelming, actually helped the cause of the Left, by demeaning the position of the Siddharta Ray Government and the wide spread reaction against the Emergency, the Nasbandi, etc came all the at the same time, that further augured well.

The first government of the pro-left, the Ajay Mukherjee government did not last for the primary reason that it could not hold the diverse factions together. This was dealt with supreme caution and rigor by the Jyoti Basu government, which came to power in 1977, and a semblance of such astuteness still continues to cohabitate, the disparate groups that continue to stay in power even now, not many examples exists in parliamentary democracy in India, again one of the strong points of the left.

ECONOMIC PERSPECTIVES

One cannot compare the performance of the government without an analysis of the economic data pertaining to GSDP growth rates, the per capita growth rates, and the sector wise growth rates and the income poverty analysis & Human development.

Let’s first look at some of the pluses before moving over to some of the things that did not go well.

Very early in the first days in office, it had been envisioned rightly that rural Bengal did hold the key for the economy in West Bengal. It accounted for 63% of the State GDP in the late seventies. It also meant that the support base of the Left had been identified very correctly quite early. But this required the structural changes in form of Land Reforms (Operation Barga) that would make the landless peasants come out of the shackles of deprivation. The growth in agriculture in this period has been the highest, as has been shown in the table, is a vindication of this point. But more importantly the Panchayati Raj system, which essentially is the extension of governance and administration in the hand of the elected majority in the rural areas, was implemented with breath-taking speed. This gave the Left the tremendous mass-association, which perhaps is one of the major reasons for its strong presence in rural Bengal even to this day. The politicalization of this process as the critics point out leaves a lot to be done and undone.

The Left however due to their more populist stances (introduction of unemployment allowance, introduction of Bengali as the medium of education, pension for the freedom fighters, literacy programs, etc) missed out that more fundamental changes required for higher growth rates in the economy of the State, the most important being the attracting of the investors to the State of West Bengal.

The chart below shows the movement of GSDP in the top 15 States and WB moved from the 10th to the 2nd position, largely due to the agricultural growth rates achieved in the period 1980 to 1990.

 

         

GR

GR

PER CAPITA GR

  GR IN GSDP GR IN PER CAPITA GSDP

RANK

RANK

RANK

RANK

STATE

1980-1990

1993-2000

1980-1990

1993-2000

1980-1990

1993-2000

1980-1990

1993-2000

                 
AP 5.5 5.3 3.3 4 4 8 5 8
ASSAM 3.5 2.5 1.3 0.9 14 15 15 15
BIHAR 4.5 4.5 2.4 2.8 11 12 10 12
GUJARAT 4.9 5.9 3 4.3 8 5 8 4
HARYANA 6.2 5.5 3.8 3.7 2 7 2 9
KARNATAKA 5.1 7.9 3.2 6.4 7 1 7 1
KERALA 3.5 5.1 2.1 4 14 10 13 7
MP 4.4 4.3 2.1 2.3 12 13 14 13
MAHARASHTRA 5.8 5.7 3.5 4.3 3 6 4 5
ORISSA 4.2 3.2 2.3 2 13 14 12 14
PUNJAB 5.1 4.9 3.3 3 6 11 6 11
RAJASTHAN 6.3 6.2 3.8 4.2 1 3 1 6
TAMILNADU 5.2 6 3.8 4.9 5 4 3 3
UP 4.8 5.2 2.5 3.1 9 9 9 10
WEST BENGAL 4.6 6.9 2.4 5.3 10 2 11 2
ALL INDIA 5.4 6.1 3.2 4.3        

 

  SECTOR WISE GSDP GROWTH RATES        
 

1980 TO 1990

 

 

1993 TO 2000

   
STATE

AGRI.

INDUSTRY

SERVICE

TOTAL

AGRI

INDUSTRY

SERVICE

TOTAL

                 
AP 2.2 7.3 7.6 5.5 2.4 6.2 6.7 5.3
ASSAM 2.2 4.1 4.5 3.5 1 3.1 3.1 2.5
BIHAR 2.9 5.9 5.4 4.5 -0.6 6.5 7.4 4.5
GUJARAT -0.5 7.5 7 4.9 -1.3 7.5 7.8 5.9
HARYANA 4.2 8.9 7.4 6.2 1.6 6.6 9 5.5
KARNATAKA 2.3 6.5 7.3 5.1 4.7 8.5 9.9 7.9
KERALA 1.9 2.8 5.1 3.5 1.3 5.4 7 5.1
MP 2.2 6.2 6.3 4.4 1.6 5.2 6.1 4.3
MAHARASHTRA 3.6 6.2 6.8 5.8 0.17 6.5 7 5.7
ORISSA 1.3 7.3 5.9 6.3 -0.43 2.4 7 3.2
PUNJAB 4.6 7.1 4.6 5.2 2.1 7 7.7 4.9
RAJASTHAN 4.3 7.4 0.5 6.3 2.7 7.4 8.6 6.3
TAMILNADU 3.5 5 6.3 5.2 1.4 53 6 6
UP 2.6 7.6 6.1 4.8 2.6 7.9 9.6 5.3
WEST BENGAL 5.3 3.6 4.7 4.6 3.1 6.1 9.6 6.9
ALL INDIA 3.1 6.6 6.4 5.3 2.7 6.2 8.1 6.1

BLEAK INDUSTRIAL PROSPECTS IN THE SAME PERIOD

The industrial sector however in this period required a much more long- term vision. It required on one hand the making of a complete change in the work culture and at the same time it required a much needed focus on the infrastructure for not only attracting investments but also for the development of markets. The intertwined linkages notwithstanding, there was actually a failure to do either. Since the investments were not forthcoming due to the image of militancy, which actually was nothing different from the Sivsena- Dutta Samant cult in Maharashtra, the absence of infrastructure was an even greater problem. The government on the other hand was far less-sighted to see what Gujarat and Maharashtra at that time had been doing, which is moving to the IMF, World Bank and other institutions for getting the much needed capital. It kept on advertising that all the problems lay in the step motherly attitude of the Centre, while in every forum the IMF, World Bank and all forms of International money lenders were crucified.

Actually this period was the most crucial one in which the rest of the top fifteen States moved ahead in terms of investments on infrastructure, industry and systems that helped the markets to grow. The absence of the markets loomed at large in Bengal while in the West the markets were already maturing in certain segments. In absence of markets many of the investments due to reasons of logistics alone shifted to the West and the South.

It is sad that the industrial climate got badly affected by the approach of some of the Left leadership, which included the erstwhile CM himself, which could not attract the entrepreneurs to the State. Even the software industry moved to Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh while all the ingredients for a good talented work force resided in West Bengal. Not a single World Class company set up shop in West Bengal while Ford, GM, GE, Toyota, Renault, Sony, Honda, Hyundai, AT & T, Motorola, Alcatel, to name a few, all set up shops through out India. Not a single world-class brand actually is missing in India in terms of manufacturing excepting in West Bengal. This has been the biggest remiss.

If one has to analyze this debacle till the end of 1990s, the most significant would be the politicalization of the administration, the public institutions, the educational institutions and more importantly the government offices. While work culture in these offices were being focused on by the other States, West Bengal seemed to be dolling out concessions to their employees who never delivered, who had no linkage with the processes of Customerization. No wonder the foreign direct investment showed a dismal picture as below :-

STATE TOTAL NO. AMOUNT PERCENTAGE
  OF APPROVALS CRORES ‘000  
       
MAHARASHTRA 4002 48 17.3
DELHI 1990 34 12
TAMILNADU 2165 23 8.3
KARNATAKA 1973 22 7.8
GUJARAT 1050 18 6.6
AP 1017 13 4.6
MADHYA PRADESH 225 9 3.2
ORISSA 136 8.2 2.9
WEST BENGAL 594 8.8 3.1

The very fact that WB could not even attract foreign investment close to Madhya Pradesh beats every logic, a sheer failure to change the perception of West Bengal.

West Bengal’s performance in terms of poverty ratios, both rural and urban although better than many States (ranked 4th in urban poverty ratios and 7th in rural) does not give the necessary respite. Neither does the performance on literacy, income poverty and other Human Development indicators. In terms of fiscal performance it had miserably lagged; all these have been repudiated by the earlier indicators on Industrial growth rates, example of a far less willing administration to turn around.

The change in some small way has started after Buddhadeb Bhattyacharya took over. Some of the changes are visible in the industrial front, the appointment of Mackenzie as the chief advisor is a vindication. Focus on infrastructure although very late, is a happening thing. It is really very late that the Left has come on terms with the fact that Globalization is here to stay for good. How much one can derive value out of it would depend on the will of the government.

The Left has at last understood that popular welfare programs could in no way bring about the kind of growth rates required to turn around. While education and health services require a lot of concerted attention, the fundamental difference that can stand out is the manner in which the government offices need to orient themselves. Job redundancy, performance enhancement, objective setting for the administrative staff has started to trickle down, but the speed has a lot to be desired. The private sector on the other hand at last have been given a free hand to deal with labor unions, barring two major strikes or lock-outs, the things have been falling in place. Voluntary retirement has become the order of the day and the labor unions have accepted it as a necessary part of business.

The current conundrum seems to be the contradictions that the party has to come on terms with. While the administration understands and wants to deliver, the party is a quagmire of regimentation and cannot go along in the same speed to make the sweeping changes. This finds itself in evidence in the reluctance to accept reforms in all the major sectors of the economy and when labor reforms would be on the cards this would be more blatantly visible.

Investments in the private sector have started in the last five years, the infrastructure has also got the much- needed boost, and five projects are in the advanced stage of completion including the National Highway connectors. The service industry has showed signs of double- digit growth; the Hyatt and the Sheratons are small examples of the promise. But still everything revolves around the city of Kolkata; large townships are still in the making.

Mackenzie has identified agro-industry and software services to have strong fundamental strengths in WB. A lot will depend on how fast these projects move. The government on the other hand has to primarily deal with culture at the work place. But with increased competition this is already under a tremendous push from all corners.

Let’s hope that the administration under a relatively younger generation of leaders delivers and is helped by the Party. The people finally will decide on the fate of the Left or the current Opposition. We can only hope that the people choose for the best from the current options, as always.

Procyon, 8th May 2003

References:

1.      Financial Express, December 23rd 2002

2.      World Bank (2000) West Bengal: Agenda for Economic Reforms

3.      Reserve Bank of India, State Finances: Study of budgets of 2001-02

EPW: Poverty in India: April 5 Issue: Joint study by World Bank & Planning Commission

THE CONTRADICTIONS OF THE LEFT IN WEST BENGAL : PERSPECTIVES & OPTIONS
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