November 9, 2000


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The Rediff Special

'In Bengal, ministers have become redundant'

Twentythree years on, has Bengal changed for the better or for the worse? Syed Firdaus Ashraf glances at Jyoti Basu's achievements and failures.

PART I: Bengal after Basu
PART II: West Bengal's new helmsman
PART III: The X Factor

When a young Jyoti Basu alighted at Bombay harbour in 1940, after 50 months of studying to be a lawyer in England, he was full of dreams. He had just decided his life's ambition -- to ameliorate the ills of India and dissolve its class barriers by setting up a free and fair social order. He had also decided that the only way to do this was to become a Communist.

Sixty years later, he is still a Communist. The problems he chose to tackle still exist in India. And in West Bengal, where a Basu-led Left Front government has been in power for the last 23 years. Basu's explanation, given in an interview to The New York Times, was, 'The (Indian) Constitution does not permit state governments to bring about fundamental changes or even tackle major economic and social problems.'

"That is the problem with Basu," says senior Trinamool Congress leader Pankaj Banerjee. "He talks like Che Guevera at a Politburo meeting, he is a pucca unionist when he is dealing with workers, he talks like an industrialist when he is attending business seminars... That is why I say Basu is like liquid; he will take the shape of the container. He has no ideology."

So what exactly has Basu achieved in West Bengal?

Ask any Bengali intellectual and pat comes the answer -- land reforms in the form of Operation Barga and the decentralisation of power.

"Land reforms and the Panchayat are the fulcrum of the CPI-M. Because of this, agricultural production in West Bengal has quadrupled in the last 23 years. We have the nation's strongest rural economy. This is Basu's personal achievement as leader of the CPI-M," says Suman Chattopadhay, editor of the leading Bengali daily, Anand Bazaar Patrika.

West Bengal Finance Minister Dr Asim Dasgupta's budget for 2000-2001 pointed out that, according to the 1992 National Sample Survey, small and marginal farmers (constituting more than 85 per cent of the total farmer population) own only 34.3 per cent of the total agricultural land. But in West Bengal, after the implementation of the land reforms, the small and marginal farmers own nearly 70.7 per cent of agricultural land.

"Bengal is the only state where we have had panchayat elections every five years. The power has really been decentralised. In Maharashtra, the ministers sitting at Mantralaya rule the state. In West Bengal, ministers have become redundant. We now have a three-tier system: the Panchayat, the Gram Panchayat Samiti and the Zilla Parishad. Most of the problems rarely reach Calcutta, they are solved at the lowest level itself," says Chattopadhay.

However Saifuddin Choudhary, the former CPI-M MP who has now been expelled from the party, is critical. "What is the use of land reforms? People own smaller areas now. Modern techniques to increase production are not being used. There is no micro credit system for farmers. The population has increased. All this should have been tackled."

Pankaj Banerjee has another charge: "In the name of land reforms, CPI-M workers have grabbed land. They help only their supporters. Opposition workers have to face their wrath. The state government has been supporting this kind of behaviour for the last 23 years."

Other disasters have been laid at Basu's door.

West Bengal today has a high unemployment rate; nearly five million people in the state do not have a job. The situation has been aggravated by the fact that thousands of companies have shut down. The public health care system is in bad shape. The state's financial situation is abysmal, with the fiscal deficit increasing from Rs 1,965 crores (Rs 1.965 billion) in 1994 to a whopping Rs 7,109 crores (Rs 7.109 billion) in 1999.

Observers say the Left Front government committed its biggest blunder when it revamped the state education system. They made Bengali the compulsory medium of education; English was taught only after class V. This resulted in an exodus from Bengal; almost everyone who could afford it preferred to study outside the state. It was only then that the government realised its error and reintroduced English at the class III level itself.

"The decision came a bit late," says Suman Chattopadhay. "An entire generation was affected. It was a major setback for the Left Front government. There used to be a saying: 'What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow.' But the Left Front government changed the entire edifice of the education system. All the appointments -- from the vice-chancellor to the university peon -- are decided by the CPI-M headquarters at Alimuddin Street. The brutal politicisation of education under Basu's tenure was a disaster for the state."

At the same time, Basu can claim credit for improving Bengal's industrial prospects. He first began inviting industrialists to invest in the state in 1994. The result? In a recent survey by the Confederation of Indian Industry, Bengal was the most favoured investment destination in India. It was ahead of industrially-savvy states like Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu.

The state's strong points, according to the survey, are its political stability and security. There is no perceived law and order problem in the state. Besides, the cost of operations in Bengal is much lower as compared to other states.

What about the labour and work culture problem that plagues West Bengal?

"There is a perception that there is no work culture here," says Arif Nazeeb, secretary general, Indian Chamber of Commerce. "This can be changed. After all, the number of strikes has come down phenomenally. Labour is not as militant in the state. Disputes can always be resolved amicably. A lot of things can be achieved through negotiation. That is why I feel Basu's career should be divided into two phases -- pre-and post-1991. There is no doubt that, pre-1991, the state did lose out on industrial investment. The policies he adopted post-1991 should have been adopted much earlier."

There has also been criticism of Basu's regular trips to London and the fact that his only child, Chandan, has reportedly become a millionaire after starting out as an apprentice in Bengal Lamps.

"We have been regularly demanding that Chandan declare his pre-and post-1977 assets. Basu himself travelled to London so many times, but always returned empty-handed. No investments resulted in the state from any of those trips," claims Trinamool leader Banerjee.

Bouquets and brickbats apart, Basu has altered the landscape of modern Bengal. Only history will indicate if its citizens will revere him like they do B C Roy, the Congress chief minister who ruled the state for 14 years.

Final word from successor Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, as quoted in the CPI-M daily, Ganashakti: 'There is no alternative to Basu. We don't have a leader who can replace him. Therefore, all the Front partners should work together to fill this void.'

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