Last week I was in Kolkata, only my third visit to what was once the capital of British India. Intent on avoiding the notorious traffic and to squeeze in a working day, I opted for the first flight back to Delhi and made it to the airport in 30 minutes as opposed to the nearly 2 hours it took me to do the same journey to the hotel the previous day.
My luck ended almost immediately. At the airport I was struck by a bizarre sight of snaking queues of nearly 3,000 people awaiting security clearance. It took me 55 minutes to clear the queue. Co-passengers were even more delayed. As a result, the flight got delayed by about 30 minutes. It punched a hole in the reputation of IndiGo, probably the smartest airline in the country; their USP is that they get you to your destination inevitably 10 minutes ahead of schedule. On Thursday, for no fault of theirs, they missed out by half an hour.
This is not an ode to the efficiency of private airports being run in the major metros across the country. (I can name as many inefficient private sector companies as you could name public sector laggards.) Instead, it is probably an example that explains what is wrong with West Bengal: governance.
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Informally, the security personnel manning the gates told me that this was the case every morning. “Too many flights going out at the same time,” the security officer said, nailing the problem. It is baffling that if the problem is so apparent, what is with the solution. Surely, it does not take rocket science to clear additional security screening stations.
It is reflective of an attitude that is a throwback to the first four decades of independent India. The insular nature of the economy as well as the ruling political elite meant you had queues for virtually everything. The political economy of this action is obvious: it helped in bottling aspirations and, more importantly, ensuring status quo. Surely, it is easier to govern in an environment that sees little or no change; Lalu Prasad did it so effectively in Bihar. But not forever.
Incremental reforms initiated over the last three decades have steadily altered status quo ante. To cite just three examples, the Maruti car had changed the way we drive, the launch of the cellphone has virtually killed the landline (an exclusive preserve of the elite till, say, even 15 years back) and enabled even the poor access to communication, and budget air carriers have altered the demography of air travel forever.
This change, while welcome, can be intimidating to authorities as it is difficult to manage with old governance tools, which is why most regimes prefer status quo. The Left, which has been a bulwark of Indian politics, has fallen prey to this phenomenon. The old governing systems have become archaic and out of sync with the new economic and political reality. Preserving status quo is just not possible any more. It is amazing how the fear of change has completely crippled West Bengal, and worse, resulted in the state missing out on an incredible opportunity.
Its topographical location when the centre of the world has shifted to the East is fortuitous. Equipped with a port, it could easily have served as the hub on India’s eastern coast and also to be a gateway to what would be the next big growth centre in the country, the North-East. Yet, the Left preferred to hold on to what it liked to believe and listened only to voices that it wanted to hear.
As a result, not only has it missed out on the opportunity to ride the unprecedented growth wave, the state has steadily bankrupted itself. The profligacy of the state is comparable with that of the Centre, the difference being that the latter could benefit from the growth spin off: higher revenues. A perusal of state finances reveal that it was among the worst five fiscal offenders in 1990-91; but, by 2009-10, it was the second worst in the country behind Uttar Pradesh.
As a result, the public exchequer does not have the wherewithal to finance the growing aspirations. At the same time, having failed to fix its ideological demons and force change in its institutions, the state has failed to create the basis for facilitating private enterprise. The experience on Thursday morning at the airport was a manifestation of this phenomenon.
Aspirations cannot be bottled for long, especially in an era where communication is in real time; Egypt demonstrated people power last week, just as the US electorate did in 2008 when it believed in the simple message of an African-American: yes, we can. What we are seeing in West Bengal is a similar battle. Mamata Banerjee, the Trinamool Congress chief, is a likely beneficiary of this and not the inspiration behind the change. Politically savvy, she probably recognizes this and hopefully seizes the opportunity and restores governance like Nitish Kumar did so devastatingly in Bihar.
Alternatively, the observations of Mirza Ghalib on his first visit to Bengal over 150 years back may continue to hold true. Quoting a friend who claims to have read it, Ghalib is supposed to have said: What a strange race! Mentally they are 100 years ahead of everybody, but in practice they are actually 100 years behind.
Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at email@example.com