Not a day goes by without one new antic from the chief minister of India’s fourth-most populous state. Mamata Banerjee’s latest display of petulance is Act II scene V in the uber theatrics that has been passing for governance in West Bengal. In this theatre of the absurd there has been only one loser: the people of the state. In an India where chief ministers like Nitish Kumar and Narendra Modi are competing for governance awards, Mamata is busy plumbing new depths. But it wasn’t always like that. Time was when a man like B.C. Roy ran the state. A brilliant physician and a great builder, he set up India’s first IIT (Indian Institute of Technology), its first IIM IIT (Indian Institute of Management) besides building three new towns. As early as 1925, he tabled a resolution recommending a study of the causes of pollution in the Hooghly and suggested measures to prevent pollution in the future. For his efforts, Roy was awarded the Bharat Ratna in 1961.
It is unlikely that any such honours will be conferred on Banerjee, once a feisty fighter for political rights but a complete misfit in her current role. Having inherited a wreck, she is busy setting fire to the remains, leaving in its wake a state without a future.
West Bengal’s share of total industrial output in India has almost halved over the last 30 years. It receives barely 2% of the total foreign direct investment (FDI) that has come into the country. According to a PricewaterhouseCoopers report, the share of industry as a percentage of the net state domestic product at factor cost in West Bengal is only 10%, as opposed to 28% in Gujarat. And the malaise is so systemic that there is little hope of any change in the near future.
Two years ago, in a paper titled “Industrializing West Bengal: The Case of Institutional Stickiness” for the Centre for Economic and Social Studies, authors Deepita Chakravarty and Indranil Bose wrote: “The right institutions for creating a more enabling environment for industry do not seem to exist… their growth or emergence is frustrated by an overarching institution—‘the party’ which seems to keep encroaching upon every sphere.”
Sadly for West Bengal, “the party” has been replaced by a neighbourhood gang, in the form of the Trinamool Congress, that can’t even shoot straight. Through the Left Front years, the toxic politicization of every single institution, in particular those related to education, led up to a human resources crisis. First the Left and then Mamata in the quest for power have alienated the intelligentsia and rendered it irrelevant.
But Bengal cannot be allowed to drain away. Just as Gujarat is variously dubbed the entrepreneurship capital of India, Bengal has been the intellectual capital of the country for over 500 years. Its early and long exposure to British administration resulted in its embrace of Western education, which led to development in science, institutional education, and social reforms of the region.
Through the Renaissance years beginning with Raja Ram Mohan Roy and till the death of Rabindranath Tagore in 1941, Bengal led the way in combining the best of India’s past with new learning from abroad, encouraging the endeavours of the Christian missionaries who introduced Western education. Tragically, this cradle of learning is today a bottom ranker in the country on educational development indices.
The émigré from West Bengal continues to contribute to the nation but nothing of note has emerged from West Bengal in such barren times. Anecdotal though the evidence is, in fields like journalism and literature, Bengalis have always been a dominant voice. Sadly their voices have been muffled within the state by its increasing lumpenization. The Marxists learnt early that lumpens and no-hopers could be controlled much more easily than the intelligentsia. It’s a lesson that Mamata has imbibed only too well. Almost ideologically committed against resource building or revenue generation, Mamata is a fascist from the left of the number line. She has no answers at a time when the state needs urgent solutions, not faux revolutionaries.
Sure, she has inherited a bankrupt treasury, but her governance has been a limping shame. A little less ego, a little less prejudice and the mantra of viva Bengal is what she needs. Bengali pride is a straw man, empty and tottering. Real pride would have meant not justifying the decrepit state of governance but revivifying the structures of the state, the bureaucracy and the local panchayats or whatever remains of it.
It is tempting to say that the fight rests now with the people of the state but a people who have had the initiative taken out of their hands might find it difficult to regroup and put up a front asking for their due.