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Kerala vs Bengal: A tale of 2 Leftist chief ministers
George Iype | September 19, 2006
One party, one ideology, but two diametrically opposed action plans.
The path taken by reformist West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and conservative Kerala Chief Minister V S Achuthanandan has landed the Communist Party of India (Marxist) into a heated ideological debate.
At the heart of the debate is the crucial question: who is taking the right decisions as chief minister -- Bhattacharjee or Achuthanandan?
When the CPI-M leaders steadfastly oppose foreign direct investments in sectors such as telecom, insurance, banking and retail, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh calls up Bhattacharjee to tone down the Left's objections.
And Opposition leaders in Kerala always blame and ridicule Achuthanandan, asking him to look to the east -- to West Bengal -- and see how Bhattacharjee has become one of India's most reformist chief ministers.
CPI-M leaders admit the styles of the two chief ministers are entirely different and that both the states are governed according to the social milieu. "There is no clash of ideology. I think both West Bengal and Kerala chief ministers are working for the development of their states. But their mode of action may be different," says CPI-M politburo member S Ramachandran Pillai.
But how differently do Bhattacharjee and Achuthanandan rule West Bengal and Kerala, respectively?
Here is a ready reckoner on the contrasting styles of governance and the stand taken by chief ministers Bhattacharjee and Achuthanandan on key issues:
Foreign direct investment
Bhattacharjee: "Ours is an open policy. We want private capital," is his oft-repeated policy statement. "We need foreign direct investment, although that does not mean we will allow Americans to sell vegetables here," the West Bengal chief minister recently said, opposing the Manmohan Singh government's plans to allow FDI in retail.
Maybe FDI in retail is the only sector that Bhattacharjee has opposed without regard to foreign investment to his state. Bhattacharjee's cabinet ministers and other state government officials have visited several countries, including the United States and China, inviting FDI into the state in core sectors such as industry, infrastructure, IT and food-processing.
Achuthanandan: Unlike Bhattacharjee, Achuthanandan does not see much benefit in FDI inflows into his state. In fact, last month he sent a letter to Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar asking him to abandon the Union government's plans to allow FDI in agriculture and plantations.
Moreover, Achuthanandan has been steadfastly supporting the Left trade unions in opposing foreign investment into most sectors. The result: Compared to other Indian states, Kerala lags behind pathetically in attracting FDI into the state.
Ban on Coca-Cola and Pepsi
Bhattacharjee: He is against banning Coke and Pepsi, in the wake of recent studies that allegedly found high levels of pesticides in colas. "The central government should take a stand and make it clear whether the products are safe or not. State governments should not impose the ban independently," Bhattacharjee said after seven states partially or fully banned the sale of Coke and Pepsi last month.
The West Bengal chief minister added: "I don't drink either, but we are not going to ban it."
Achuthanandan: He was the first chief minister in India to impose a total ban on the sale and manufacture of Pepsi and Coke in Kerala last month. In fact, in the last few years, Achuthanandan had led the anti-Coke campaign for shutting down the Coca-Cola plant at Plachimada in Kerala's Palakkad district. "We will not allow MNCs to produce colas that are injurious to people's health," Achuthanandan said.
Achuthanandan: The Dubai Internet City wanted to set up a Smart City -- an exclusive global IT park -- on a 100-acre plot of land by investing nearly Rs 300 crore (Rs 3 billion) in Kochi in Kerala. But the man who has opposed it most is Achuthanandan.
He dubbed DIC as 'a real estate company' and re-examined the agreement that his predecessor former Congress chief minister Oommen Chandy had entered into with the Dubai government.
"There are clauses that go against Kerala's interests. So we do not want the Smart City," Achuthanandan said soon after becoming Kerala's chief minister. Now, he wants the DIC to enter into a new agreement with the Left government.
Bhattacharjee: Kerala's loss may be West Bengal's gain. Soon after news broke that the Left-led Kerala government was not interested in setting up the Smart City, Bhattacharjee sent a high-level official team, led by the West Bengal chief secretary to Dubai. West Bengal offered 400 acres of land on the outskirts of Kolkata to DIC to set up the Smart City without the difficult conditionalities that the Kerala government had proposed. The Dubai Internet City is now evaluating Bhattacharjee's proposal.
BPOs working on Independence Day
Achuthanandan: The Kerala government shut down the offices of the business process outsourcing companies that are operating in the state on Independence Day (August 15). A number of BPOs operating at Technopark in Trivandrum and at Infopark in Kochi had asked a section of employees to work on August 15 as BPOs -- mainly working on foreign projects -- need 24-hours work schedules.
Achuthanandan, however, ordered the Labour Department to issue an official order to ensure that all the BPOs are shut under the Kerala Industrial Establishments and National Holidays Act on the Independence Day.
Bhattacharjee: The West Bengal government allowed all the BPO companies to work normally on Independence Day. In fact, Bhattacharjee defended the decision saying: "Asking BPO companies to shut down will be like shutting down a power plant on a holiday."
Bhattacharjee: The West Bengal government is taking all possible steps to ensure that the state has the best infrastructure. Last year, it roped in Indonesian infrastructure company, the Salim Group, to set up investment projects: a 'health city,' a 'knowledge city,' a special economic zone, and an express highway in the state.
Bhattacharjee is also actively wooing foreign investment from the US, Italy, Russia, China, Singapore and Indonesia for IT and infrastructure development across West Bengal.
"Our position is very clear. We want private investment in West Bengal," the chief minister recently remarked.
Achuthanandan: The Achuthanandan government has not taken any steps in the last three months to attract foreign investment in infrastructure development of Kerala. In fact, Achuthanandan, while in Opposition, was in the forefront, opposing the Rs 7,000 crore (Rs 70 billion) Express Highway plan that the Congress government had announced.
Due to opposition from the Left, the Congress regime had then shelved the project. Now the very expression 'Express Highway' is anathema to Achuthanandan.
However, Kerala's industries minister says that the government is taking the rights steps for infrastructure development in the state. "We are setting up a new, public-private infrastructure development company for building roads, bridges and even airports in Kerala. Yes, foreign investment is welcome," Industries Minister Elamaram Kareem told rediff.com.
Bhattacharjee: When the Manmohan Singh government hiked the prices of petroleum products two months ago, the Left-led trade unions called for a general strike across the country. Prime Minister Singh then called up Bhattacharjee asking him to help tone down the Left's opposition to the price hike. Soon, the chief minister declared that he was against a general strike on the petrol price issue although demonstrations could take place, as in any democracy.
Once West Bengal used to be hit by frequent labour strikes. But these days, thanks to Bhattacharjee, the state rarely witnesses any strikes.
Achuthanandan: Kerala is best known for industrial strikes and Achuthanandan has not done much to erase the image. In fact, Kerala was the only state that was fully paralysed during the Left-led national strike against petrol price hike two months ago.
A trade union leader himself, Achuthanandan argues that citizens have the democratic right to protest against all the anti-people policies of the government.