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Corporate May 14, 2011

Bengal: Good from far, far from good

By Indrajit Gupta

"Why don't we buy a flat of our own in Kolkata?" My wife has a nagging habit of popping the same question every time we discuss our long-term finances. My incredulous look would immediately nix any prospect of a discussion. In my mind, I've virtually eliminated the idea of ever settling down in Kolkata. I still love visiting the city though, to meet the large extended family and the few close friends who stayed back in the city, visiting all the familiar haunts, eating at all the favourite restaurants and soaking in the charming Kolkata club life. But settling down there? No way!

As the election results in Bengal began pouring out on Friday morning, signalling a landslide victory for Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress party, I was half-expecting my wife to pose the same question again. Fortunately, she didn't. Yet the moot point now is: will we now see a new Bengal rise from the ashes of the 34-year old Communist rule? Or is that just a romantic notion harboured by many, like my wife?

The answers are, of course, far from clear. On the face of it, it can't get worse than this. Mamata has inherited a shell of an economy. Bengal is now the third-most indebted state in the country. Big Business has all but left its shores. Except for ITC, parts of the RPG Group and Exide, there's not much left in the city to create new jobs and wealth. Hundreds of the industrial units in the Howrah and Durgapur-Asansol industrial belt have been huge shutdowns. A friend who runs a packaging unit in the state says the cost of corruption has jumped five-fold in the last few years. If a government employee demanded a bribe of Rs 1,000 for any ordinary licence to do business three years ago, they now ask for Rs 5,000.

Seeing the writing on the wall, the best bureaucrats have been fleeing the state for a while. Some have entirely quit the service. Others have applied for posts at the Centre. A former bureaucrat I spoke to on my last trip to the city says most bureaucrats at Writers Buildings (seat of the State Government) have stopped thinking for themselves. Educational institutions that were once the pride of Bengal are now mired in politics. And the Left has singlehandedly destroyed the culture of meritocracy at most educational institutions by placing their own cadres at the helm. In the rural hinterland, a journalist friend tells me that the fabric of social harmony has been completed destroyed by the CPI(M) cadres who've unleashed a wave of terror across the state.

Yes, it really can't get worse than this. It may be easy to win an election on the promise of 'paribartan', or change. But delivering on that promise will be nothing, but a huge test of Mamata's leadership skills. While I'm clearly no fan of her brand of die-hard politics, there's one thing that no one doubts: her commitment to Bengal's cause. You can count on her to push for change and nudge the Centre to support Bengal's revival.

But if the state has to move on, it needs new ideas beyond merely pandering to populism. Till date, beyond the large railway projects that she's bestowed on the state, there's little to suggest that she has a larger vision for the industrialisation of the state. In fact, my colleague Dinesh Narayanan, during his coverage of Mamata's campaign, couldn't see a concrete plan in her manifesto or speeches for the state's revival.

Her finance minister Amit Mitra may have some of the answers, but he too needs the support of like-minded people to get things executed. By the looks of it, neither does the party nor the bureaucracy have the leadership cadre to get things done. And you can count on the Left to try to maim every new plan that the Trinamool comes up with. Don't forget that they still control the unions that still matter: the teachers, banks and labour are still the Left's preserve.

When we were growing up in Kolkata, I've often heard my dad talk about just how well the Kolkata municipality was run. Under BC Roy's leadership, the state had the respect of senior leaders like Nehru. Presidency College was considered the epitome of teaching and scholarship. Truly, what Bengal thought of today, the rest of the country would follow tomorrow. Today, the irony is that Bengal may indeed have to take a leaf out of the Bihar's book to turn around the state. And while I watch Mamata's reign in Bengal with rapt attention, one thing is for sure: I'll not be thinking of moving back to Kolkata in a hurry.

by Indrajit Gupta

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