Kolkata: Back in 2001, when Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPM took office as West Bengal chief minister, he turned to Nirupam Sen, the second-most important man in the cabinet, to take charge of commerce and industries.
Priorities had changed over the two-and-a-half decades of Left rule in West Bengal by the time Sen took over industry. And the state witnessed more changes over the decade till 2011, when Mamata Banerjee ended the CPM’s 34-year rule.
As Bhattacharjee, Sen and another former finance minister Asim Dasgupta—the trio who led the push for industrialization in the state—ride into sunset, stepping down from key panels of the CPM on account of their advanced age, the jury is out on what went wrong with their plans for industry.
As early as in 1994, in the wake of economic reforms, the CPM realized that it had to make “some tactical policy adjustments" to cope with the new economic order, said Prasenjit Bose, an economist and social activist, who was once a party member. “But under Bhattacharjee’s leadership, there was a strategic shift—class struggle through development became the new mantra," said Bose. This essentially meant the government shifted focus from “redistributive" welfare initiatives to private investments.
The immediate political dividends of the shift were visible in the Left Front’s resounding victory in the 2006 assembly election. But over time, it led to the emergence of a conflict between the CPM’s supporters among the rural poor and the urban middle class, according to Bose. Under Bhattacharjee, the government started to acquire land to attract private investments whereas it could have explored the alternative of using land locked up in closed factories, said Bose.
Dasgupta, the former finance minister, defends the decision to acquire private land, saying that it went wrong only in Singur and Nandigram—two villages that saw popular uprisings over land acquisition and contributed to the 2011 defeat of the CPM government.
The industrial parks and the land banks that the current government boasts of were all created by Left Front governments, he said. But the party should have earned the trust of the local people in Singur and Nandigram as it had done in the 1980s when land in the port town of Haldia was acquired to set up large factories.
During the 10 years of Bhattacharjee, “things changed too fast", said a key bureaucrat from that time. For almost 24 years, the CPM had focused on redistribution of land and strengthening panchayats, this person said, asking not to be identified.
After being lenient with trade unions for decades, Bhattacharjee started to publicly say that the party “unfortunately" continues believe in bandhs (shutdowns). The need to lift the state’s image in the minds of private investors was also felt by his predecessor Jyoti Basu, but Basu would restrict himself to saying bandhs are a disruptive tool in the workers’ struggle which should be used sparingly, said this official.
Looking back, it appears people were not convinced by Bhattacharjee’s rhetoric because it was a “break from the Left legacy till 2001", and this was one of the reasons why people in West Bengal lost confidence in his policies, according to this official.
“Unfortunately, for Bhattacharjee, sound economics turned into bad politics," said Roopen Roy, a management consultant and former managing director of Deloitte Consulting India Pvt. Ltd. World over, small and medium enterprises are among big job creators, but such businesses cannot run in isolation—they typically grow as ancillary units of large factories, said Roy.
The current regime is pushing small and medium enterprises to expand and create jobs, but in the absence of large manufacturing facilities, few jobs are being created in West Bengal, according to Roy. As a result, the state has now turned into a net exporter of workers, he added.