Resuscitating West Bengal

Resuscitating West Bengal

Mamata Banerjee has ensured a place in the history books by bringing to an ignominious end 34 years of Communist rule in West Bengal. But what she sets out to do now is an even more arduous task—that of restoring the state’s moribund economy to its former glory.

There are several reasons why it’s difficult. The first reason, the one easier to take care of, is the fact that the Left regime has left the state finances in a shambles. There is no money in the state coffers and the Left Front government had been reduced to paying salaries out of borrowed money. A related reason is the deindustrialization of the state under Communist rule. As the Trinamool Congress election manifesto pointed out, the share of manufacturing in the net state domestic product fell from 19% in 1975-76 to 7.4% by 2008-09. A third reason is the systematic subversion of the state’s institutions by the Communists. The government had become subservient to the cadre raj. The new rulers will have to reverse this pernicious process and ensure industrial peace in the state, which will be opposed tooth and nail by the Communist unions.

But Banerjee’s biggest test lies in the fact that a big reason for her victory was her ability to ride the wave of anger against the dispossession of peasants by Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s ham-handed, though well-meaning, attempts to push through industrialization. She has fuelled the sentiment against land acquisition and this could come back to haunt her in the future. Her populist credentials sit ill at ease with the need for rapid economic growth and industrialization in the state.

To be fair, the Trinamool Congress poll manifesto does not have the kind of overt populist schemes as, for instance, J. Jayalalithaa has promised. There’s no mention of subsidized rice or free ceiling fans. Instead, the emphasis is on development. While the manifesto is in many respects merely a statement of good intentions, as such documents usually are, its emphasis on very doable things such as relaxing cumbersome rules and encouraging information technology is welcome. Nor should we underestimate her capacity for change. In recent times, she seems to have successfully shed her street fighter image for a more sober one. Her restraint after the historic victory has been commendable. She has been able to keep her party workers on a firm leash and there has been no trace of the post-poll violence that many were afraid of. Nevertheless, her greatest challenge will be in curbing her propensity to cultivate short-term political gains through populism and instead make the state attractive to private investment again.

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