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The new Left in new Bengal

May 26, 2006 11:07 IST

Immediately after the Left Front recorded its seventh consecutive victory in the West Bengal assembly polls, a television journalist asked veteran CPI-M leader Jyoti Basu to comment on his party's position on economic reforms.

Mr Basu's reply was insightful. "What reforms? Who started these reforms? We in Bengal started land reforms in the late 1970s and it was in the 1990s that we came out with a new industrial policy to attract new investment in the state," Mr Basu said in a tone that dismissed any suggestion that it was the present chief minister of Bengal, Buddhadev Bhattacharjee, who was spearheading the reforms programme in the state.

It was clear that Jyoti Basu did not want to lose the ownership of the reforms plank even to his successor, let alone the Congress at the Centre.

Mr Basu's concern was understandable. For, a day or two later, an editorial in the CPI-M's mouthpiece, People's Democracy, attributed the Left Front victory in West Bengal to Buddhadev Bhattacharjee's industrialisation model and economic reforms.

"Growth of the purchasing power in rural Bengal today generates the demand for a new phase of industrialisation. It is this vision of such a new phase of industrialisation advanced by the Left Front which captured the imagination of the people and, hence, this result," the editorial argued.

Indeed, Mr Bhattacharjee's entire poll campaign focused on industrialisation and the need to strengthen agriculture.

This was not an empty slogan. On the same day that Mr Bhattacharjee took oath as the chief minister, the Tata group announced its plan to set up a Rs 1,000 crore (RS 10 billion) plant to produce small cars in West Bengal. Clearly, the West Bengal administration had been negotiating with the Tatas in advance so that soon after the formation of the new government it could announce the investment plan.

The oath-taking ceremony itself was arranged in a manner that spread the message of industrialisation loud and clear. Several industry leaders across the country were invited to attend the swearing-in ceremony. Ideological considerations were set aside and quite a few industrialists were present at Raj Bhavan, where Mr Bhattacharjee took oath to start his third innings as the chief minister.

Pawan Ruia, an industrialist who became famous after buying out Jessop from the central government, is now a friend of the Left Front government in Bengal. He has already taken over Dunlop and has made some headway in settling the labour dispute and reopening the factory.

Mr Ruia has also indicated to the state government that he is interested in acquiring the sick Durgapur-based Mining and Allied Machinery Corporation. This is a company owned by the central government. Given the number of jobs the reopening of MAMC will create, it is likely that the Bengal government will soon endorse Mr Ruia's case for acquiring MAMC.

That will be privatisation. But then the Left Front government in West Bengal has not shied away from privatising a few of its own sick units. It may choose to describe such transactions as a strategic sale of government equity.

But the sale of controlling stake in the Great Eastern to a private company is nothing but privatisation. If officials in the state government are to be believed, the controlling stakes in more such state units are expected to pass on to private entities in the next couple of years.

Similar reformist action has taken place on the agriculture front. Mr Bhattacharjee was keen on wresting for the CPI-M the ministerial portfolio of agriculture from the Forward Bloc, one of the Left Front partners. He did not succeed there and agriculture continues to be looked after by a Forward Bloc minister.

But that has not deterred him from pushing ahead with reforms in agriculture. One of the first visitors to the state capital this week was renowned agricultural scientist M S Swaminathan.

Mr Bhattacharjee had a one-on-one meeting with Dr Swaminathan. And one of the issues that figured during the discussion was contract farming, even though it is a highly controversial issue for Left ideologues.

There are clear advantages of contract farming in terms of improved earnings for farmers provided there is a regulatory structure, rural infrastructure is in place to transport the farm produce to the markets and adequate food-processing capacity has been created to take advantage of the produce generated out of contract farming.

The new agriculture minister, coming as he does from the Forward Bloc, has deep reservations about contract farming. But going by what he told the media (mind you, he was not privy to what Mr Bhattacharjee discussed with Dr Swaminathan), it seems he sees little option other than accepting contract farming in Bengal in a big way.

Already, a few multinational companies have successfully undertaken contract farming of potato in south Bengal. In the months to come, the Left Front-ruled state will see more contract farming in larger areas. If farmers see their earnings increase, Mr Bhattacharjee's reforms model will get another boost and the Left Front will hope to cash in on this for the next elections as well.

This is the new Left in Bengal. Its reforms programme may have many flaws. But it has managed to wrench itself out of its ideological shackles and is unabashedly wooing domestic industry and foreign capital to revive the state's economic fortunes and create more jobs.
A K Bhattacharya