Kolkata: Three years ago, when Singur was on the boil, the Trinamool Congress, West Bengal’s main opposition party, faced flak for leading a violent agitation against Tata Motors Ltd’s Nano car factory near Kolkata.
Amit Mitra, former secretary-general of industry lobby group Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Ficci), was no exception.
He described the political protests against the proposed factory as unfortunate, although he said governments shouldn’t be acquiring land forcibly.
Since then, Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee has risen in popularity, thanks largely to her objections over land acquisition in West Bengal. With her party becoming an important ally of the Congress in New Delhi, opinions have changed— Mitra now considers Banerjee as a person who has the vision to turn things around for the state.
Having shed Savile Row suits and pinstripes to don India’s political uniform—white dhoti and kurta—Mitra is one of the Trinamool Congress’ key candidates in West Bengal’s assembly election this year, pitted against the state’s finance minister Asim Dasgupta at the Khardah constituency on the northern fringes of Kolkata.
“If he wins, and the Trinamool Congress is voted to power, he is to become either the finance or the commerce and industries minister,” said a Union minister from Banerjee’s party, who did not want to be named. “He was handpicked by our leader long ago to be one of the key ministers in her cabinet.”
“People thought my wife and I were eccentric when we decided to return from the US in 1990,” said Mitra, adding that he was “taking it a step ahead” by tracing his roots in West Bengal. “You and I have waited for34 years; the time has come to give democracy a chance in West Bengal.”
Though Banerjee is excited at getting people such as Mitra to join her party—he even drafted the party’s manifesto, which looks more like a five-year business development plan than a political statement of purpose—he wasn’t given an easy seat.
Dasgupta has been winning from Khardah with about 159,000 voters from 1987, and had in 2006 won by a margin of over 40,000 votes.
Though in the 2009 general election, the tide turned and the Trinamool Congress led from the Khardah assembly constituency by at least 1,400 votes, the constituency has been expanded this time under so-called delimitation to include some traditional Left strongholds.
Even as Dasgupta’s supporters crunch numbers to show he is the favourite this time, too, Mitra seems unfazed—he is counting on the sweeping anti-incumbency wave and the state’s rocketing indebtedness to swing votes even in the Left bastions added to the Khardah constituency this time.
For months, the Trinamool Congress has been running a pointed campaign against the finance minister for what it calls the “profligate” state’s outstanding debt of Rs 1.9 trillion. But how does Mitra propose to tackle it if he gets to occupy the office of his key opponent?
“The Centre, too, has faced huge deficits, but we managed to turn around,” said Mitra. “Bengal, too, can emerge from this crisis, but to do so it needs a leader with vision and a road map, who can convince the Planning Commission and the Centre to offer more financial support.”
The Left Front, he alleged, doesn’t have the vision. “We need short-term support initially, such as interest waivers, but going forward we need to generate more income to resolve this crisis.”
Mitra was referring to West Bengal’s poor tax-state domestic product (SDP) ratio which, at less than 5%, is one of the worst in the country. One of West Bengal’s key problems is its inability to shore up tax revenue, according to Abhirup Sarkar, professor of economics at Kolkata’s Indian Statistical Institute.
“The poor tax-SDP ratio indicates people don’t pay taxes in this state-they get away by paying the party in power,” he said. “The entire system is responsible for this situation, not just the finance minister.”
But Dasgupta knows from experience that not too many people in Khardah-largely an industrial neighbourhood- would be swayed by economic theories he and Mitra have learnt at foreign universities.
So he points at the “hundreds” of small and medium enterprises that have mushroomed in his constituency and claims success for the Left Front government for creating jobs. There are some 500 small and medium industrial units along the Kalyani expressway, a nearby arterial road that connects Kolkata with North 24 Parganas district, Dasgupta said, adding: “Units like these dot Khardah, providing employment to thousands of people-that is what matters most.”
But alongside, many large factories in the neighbourhood of Khardah have closed down, and the Trinamool Congress has positioned Mitra as one who could bring life back to them, given his contacts in the industry.