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The Marxists of West Bengal

August 30, 2004

I have many fond and nostalgic memories of Calcutta (sorry, Kolkata) going back to more than 35 years. When I was president of a bank officers' trade union, much of my support during and after the indefinite strike we conducted in 1969 came from the West Bengal unit.

I also have another memory, with specific reference to my published columns. The title of my first published article, in a house journal of the State Bank of India (SBI), was "Oh, Calcutta!", written after a visit to that city during the heyday of Marxist militancy, and named after a popular musical on the English stage that displayed a lot of nudity, at least by the standards of those days.

While my visits to Kolkata have become much less frequent in recent years, I cannot help noticing more strongly with each visit how the eastern city is improving in terms of its infrastructure, even as my home city, Mumbai, keeps deteriorating.

I still remember one occasion when the Marxist-ruled municipal corporation removed all illegal structures from the roads overnight, something the Left would denounce in the harshest terms if undertaken by almost any other municipal corporation in the country.

In fact, nothing illustrates more starkly the hypocrisy and double standards of our ruling classes than their behaviour in office and out of it.

There is little difference in this between the Congress and the BJP: both denounce in opposition exactly what they practise(d) when in power.

While all major political parties are guilty of such double standards, few can compete with the Marxists in the great diversion between what they advocate in Delhi and what they actually do on the ground in the state they have been ruling without a break for more than a quarter century.

Even as the Left continues to oppose foreign direct investment and also swears by its quasi-religious faith in the efficacy and virtue of the public sector, the West Bengal government is going out of its way to woo both foreign and private domestic investment in all possible forums: chambers of commerce, private meetings, calls on embassies and so on.

P&O Ports has recently finalised plans for an investment of $400 million in Bengal for developing a port and a special economic zone. The government is lobbying with German, French, Italian, Chinese and south-east Asian countries to attract investment. Even Pepsi has invested in Bengal  --  and so has GE Capital.

To facilitate investment in services exports like call centres, such industries have been designated as public utilities so that they can keep flexible hours and their employees are barred from agitations or taking industrial action.

During the last bandh called for by Left trade unions, the government arranged cars to take employees to offices. In a recent interview, Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya acknowledged that people are "treating bandhs as unscheduled holidays. But this can't go on. I am thinking of taking some harsh measures next time irrespective of who calls it."

There is an equal contrast between the ideological mooring of the Left as regards the multilateral institutions, and the active pursuit of loans from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank by the West Bengal government.

For Bhattacharya, they do not seem to be demons and their resources are as welcome as anybody else's. What Bhattacharya said in the same interview about sick public sector undertakings nationalised in earlier times, is equally heretic: "I don't think we did the right thing then by taking them over."

Bhattacharya and his Marxist colleagues will be totally at home in Beijing and Shanghai where their brother Marxists are doing exactly the same things  --  a red carpet for foreign investors, privatisation and a consumer society.

The Delhi Marxists would find themselves completely out of place north of the border  --  indeed, on issues like foreign investment and globalisation they would feel far more at home in the Nagpur headquarters of the RSS than in Communist China.

There is, of course, another area in which Delhi can learn from the experience of Kolkata: on the utter futility of efforts to revive sick public enterprises  --  to be sure, it has enough experience of its own.

Nevertheless, in the recent Budget, the finance minister appointed yet another board for a case-by-case study of sick PSUs and the action to be taken in respect of each.

In a series of articles in the Indian Express published in the last month and this, Arun Shourie has documented the failure of revival efforts despite pouring huge amounts of public money. Mark Tully was so right in titling his book as No Full Stops in India.

But let me come back to where I started  --  in Kolkata. As many media stories report, the city has changed dramatically in recent years.

Multiplexes, new restaurants, shopping malls and office blocks abound and new ones keep coming up. Is a "yuppie" about to take over as a representative Kolkatan from the fire eating gherao leader and the sad, bidi-smoking, endlessly talking intellectual?

Some relics of the old days still remain, for example, the foreign department and its dealing room which good old SBI continues to maintain in the eastern metropolis. But Kolkata regaining its former pre-eminence as the economic capital seems a distant dream. The 1960s and 1970s have surely ensured that.

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Number of User Comments: 7

Sub: Attitudinal changes

When Kolkata is undergoing a renaissance (!!!) the attitude of a sector of the people is still aweful. It is the rugged attitude of the ...

Posted by M M G

Sub: Show the light not the darkness....

There was one Mahatma but there were thousands who preached his peace. There was one Subhas but thousands who followed. These men showed the light ...

Posted by Jay

Sub: Mr Journalist you are rite and wrong!

Yes Kolkata has improved but it will never be able to become a modern city. It is still a village and will remain a village ...

Posted by SS

Sub: West Bengal and the left parties...

The article is more of a superficial and looses the depth in coverage. It forgets to mention about the last CM of the state Jyoti ...

Posted by Sammy

Sub: some more time

It will take one more decade for kolkata to come up as a major city of 21st century.West bengal also needs to develop other cities ...

Posted by sreeram


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