Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Recounting Kolkata's Past - How we got there

Yesterday, I wrote rather flippantly about Kolkata. I was not thinking, but I was happy and feeling light, particularly after finishing a few tasks which was sitting on my to-do list for ages. However, I did not know I was touching a few raw nerves there. At least one person reminded me that it hurts to be reminded that Kolkata has fallen so far behind. Another mused that everyone knows that Kolkata needs a future, but there isn't one - it missed the boat. A friend complained that I stated something that I did not justify - how to turn around Kolkata.

I shall keep this for tomorrow. Because, before that, we need to talk about how we got into this current mess in the first place. I do think that the politics is primarily responsible - as politics plays such a central part in life in India and it is one of the least professionalized (I don't mean in money terms) disciplines. However, it is plain to see that West Bengal, and Kolkata, lost out the promise it had at the time of India's independence, when it was a pre-eminent state and had great intellectual capital to boast about. As many observers agree, the process started immediately after independence, but the degeneration became faster since 1970s, and particularly acute since the economic reforms set the rest of India on a different platform in the 1990s.

Let me explain. This story of degeneration can be traced back to the years in the early 70s, when under a delusional Mrs. Gandhi, the whole country lost its sense of direction, compromised its principled foreign policy, devalued and eventually suspended democracy and created a bureaucracy-driven license raj. Thinking from another angle - that was actually an window of opportunity for India. The perennial challenge from Pakistan seemed to have subsided then. The Nehruvian self-reliance created the platform, as it was designed to do, and the world economy was approaching a tectonic shift. This is the time when America will lose in Vietnam and go through Watergate and the entrepreneurial energy of silicon valley hippies will eventually win the cold war. This was the time when the time was on side with democracy and enterprise. However, we missed the boat collectively, failed to change the agenda [while China did] and sided with the losing side.

West Bengal, then, was ruled by a set of opportunistic wheeler-dealers, who shamelessly rigged the elections, suspended their judgement to curry favours from Delhi and brutally suppressed any opposition. They criminalized the state, subverted the independent media, compromised the education system and underfunded the development. They failed - as did the rest of the country - to see the opportunity and take it.


It was clear, much before it happened, that their time was over. They would have lost elections had they not shamelessly rigged some of them. But the symptoms of implosion was evident. The opposition was hounded, and therefore, gained resolve. The political center point was empty because the leftward lurch of the rhetoric in the congress party, further accentuated by the suspension of democracy in the whole country in 1975. So, when finally emergency was lifted, the congress leaders were booted out as promptly as they came in, and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), uniting with other left parties, came to power.


The first, and the biggest achievement of this combine was to redistribute land among the tillers and end the terrible inequality of land ownership, which plague the quest of agricultural efficiency in other parts of India. The reform of land ownership was a huge step, as this created shared prosperity in the villages of West Bengal and created the goodwill for the party.

However, since this was completed - in the early 80s - CPIM did not achieve much, except a key political victory, which I shall come to in a minute. Their list of failures, on the other hand, grew substantially over their reign of three decades. They helped to degenerate the education and health care system, completely subverting the meritocracy and decimating the intellectual leadership. They allowed systematic neglect of Kolkata's urban infrastructure, pursued an agitational politics to keep the private industrial investment out and allowed the public sector units to fail. Their decision to abandon English in schools spelt disaster for children attending state schools, and their blindness to see how other states are benefitting by allowing private investment in education seriously hurt the competitiveness of the state.

But, still, CPIM remained in power. This is because of a key political victory - executed to perfection by the man who towered over Bengal's politics for almost five decades, Jyoti Basu. They chose their opposition. CPIM systematically trashed all opposition from all angles - from within and without - by a combination of political canniness and other methods which were not so civilized. But, they did not leave a vacuum - they promoted the firebrand Mamata Bandopadhyay, the divisive rabble rousing congress leader, to a position of prominence, and eventually to megalomania.


Ms Bandopadhyay has many great qualities of becoming an opposition leader, but none that of a leader of government. She has impeccable personal integrity, which compares so favourably with many of her colleagues' records, but no political principle, which makes her appear an out-and-out opportunist. She is fiery in her opposition, a great naysayer, but has no vision of her own. She defined her politics as that of being uncompromisingly anti-CPIM, unwittingly handing out an eternal run in the government for CPIM as long as she dominates the opposition agenda.


I feel that if the first achievement, of land reform, kept CPIM in power for their first 15 years, the second one, implanting Ms Bandopadhyay as the opposition-in-chief helped them for their next 15.


But, as all good things come to an end, this political game is drawing to a close in Kolkata. Though no opposition leader is yet in sight, Ms Bandopadhyay has proved that she can not win an election [actually, in modern politics of indifference, no leader so divisive can ever pull the majority with them]. Her primacy in opposition is running on extra-time. She is like Robert Mugabe [though to Mugabe's credit, he is an winner] - an excellent mass rabble-rouser who has a delusional megalomania, far removed from people and aspirations. Ms Bandopadyay shows all symptoms of directionlessness - appearing quixotic most of the time. She is waiting to be relieved, and it is only a matter of time for a fresh face, with a fresh agenda, backed by the full power of Satellite TV to appear on the scene.


CPIM's new leadership, which succeeded Mr. Basu, is also clueless on how to create the next agenda. Agreed, they are constrained by their central leadership. The problem of all communist parties [is it because Marx was German, and as Engels famously observed, the German Philosophers always believed in finding an universal answer] is that they always pretend to be a world party, even when their agenda is intensely local. For a long time, CPIM maintained a central leadership drawing from leaders from other states, to create a facade of a national entity. However, these leaders had no political experience outside their college campuses. Hence, CPIM's policy making, dominated by these politico-bureaucrats, became far removed from people and agendas of the day. Since in the great communist tradition [and in pretence] the party comes first, the leaders of government in West Bengal always acceded to the political agenda of the party, failing to do 'the right thing' on many occasions.

It is undeniable that they tried, but the failure of these attempts actually show why their time is up. They reversed the earlier politics and started inviting industrial investment in the state. For many industrialists, the state's undemanded land combined with its underpaid labour, was tempting - so they came in. The administration tried to invite investments in IT, and incentivized the BPO, in the hope to follow the success story of Bangalore.

However, their attempts were as piecemeal and misdirected as the soviet attempts to open their economy in the late 80s were. They did not change their policies of de-meritorizing education. They did not attempt to reform urban infrastructure, particularly public transport. They did not attempt to encourage small scale industry and home-grown businesses. Just like the Soviets, they thought big investments will change the economic landscape of the state, but still counted the home-grown entrepreneur as a class enemy. It was too little too late and completely disconnected from reality.

I say the attempts were too 'prime time', where the Chief Minister behaved as a Prima Donna rather than a man of the people. In their desperation, they dished out arable agricultural land to satisfy the demands of industrial investment. They failed to realize the anger of the people, who were encouraged to connect to their land by the same party thirty years back. [Again, is this in Communist grain - as Lenin promised 'Land to the People' to come to power, and Stalin went through the barbaric collectivization exercise?] When people protested, the civil governance was suspended in the affected areas, and party militia attacked the protesters to 'teach them a lesson'. While the carnage was going on, the administration remained indifferent, and the Chief Minister excused himself saying that he is a party man first.


But economic development, so far, failed to arrive. Not surprisingly, while the Chief Minister was cat walking for the industrialists, I was amazed to find that trade licensing, an essential step for small businesses to start, was suspended for more than two months because of a political dispute between two ministers. In the end, CPIM's attempts to industrialize are full of symptoms of an impending implosion, just as it was thirty years back for the Congressman.


So, CPIM has an organic deafness and Ms Bandopadhyay is megalomaniacally blind, and poor Kolkata is caught in between them. But I still remain an optimist. I imagine the politics in Kolkata/ West Bengal is approaching a crossroad, and there is a real possibility that a credible political alternative to CPIM, which has ruled Bengal for last 30 years, will now emerge.

Why I say so? Because the world has moved on since the time CPIM or Mamata Bandopadhyay learnt their politics. India has become aspirational. New issues, and opportunities, have arisen. Possibilities have been created. Taboos have been broken, cultures have been fused. From a state of fear, Indians have moved to a state of empowerment. From thinking what we can not do, we have come to think what we can do. I am no fan of Gandhi clan, but Rahul Gandhi's recent speech in Parliament - think like a big country - has a point. And, that is precisely the point Kolkata has missed so far. And, this is the message, of hope, of optimism, and of future, will surely now rise - that is the nature of human history.

Let me conclude this statement with a quote from - oh lo behold - George W Bush! I shall, of course, quote what he is going to say, rather than what he has already said [and, therefore, this is Bushism-proof!]. George Bush is scheduled to make a speech tomorrow morning in Thailand and advance copies of the speech is available through the White House website. I have, of course, taken the liberty of replacing the references of China with 'West Bengal' in the quote:

"Change in [West Bengal] will arrive on its own terms and in keeping with its own history and traditions. Yet change will arrive."

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