Monday, February 12, 2007


Ashok Mitra
[Transcribed by Dola Sen; (Courtesy: Shramshakti, June 2006)]

A lot of wisdom is being freely distributed nowadays. Since the breakdown of the experiments with building socialism in Eastern Europe, it is being said that the philosophy on which socialism is based has been comprehensively defeated too. The second thing being oft repeated is that for the last fifteen-sixteen years the onset of globalisation has utterly transformed the old ideas about socio-economic conditions; all the old beliefs now lie in the dust; even the analyses of capitalism carried out from around the middle of the nineteenth century by socialist thinkers need to be considerably modified if they are to have any relevance now. Everyone now has to obey the logic of capital, and follow the principle of efficiency: whoever is not efficient has no right to exist. This new doctrine now holds the reins in our country, even in our very own West Bengal.It is quite clear that there is something rotten about the grounds of our belief. Loud voices are raised from public platforms against the conspiracy of global capital, yet, when it comes to action, it is being said that there is no way but to give in to globalisation. Just because we of the Left have been in power in West Bengal, it does not follow that the all-pervasive influence of globalisation will fall flat on its face here, apparently we too have to make our productive activities more market oriented, otherwise we will not survive. Even if, for the sake of argument, we accept this statement for the moment, even if production has to make some compromises with the dictates of the market, why should the conditions and processes of production become dependent on the market, that is to say, on private capital? A clear debate on this issue is an urgent necessity, and most urgently so in Left circles.It is crystal clear from the results of the recent elections that there is no alternative to the Left Front in West Bengal, there is no credible opposition in the state. But the Left Front is no formless omnipotent divinity, there will be lapses and failures, setbacks and hesitations in its programme of activity. Development, the resources necessary for development, the objectives of development, and so on and so forth – a discussion of these issues falls within the ambit of communist commitment. And thus this essay.Everyone knows that development needs investment, and for investment we need capital. But just because we need capital, do we need capitalists in quite the same way? We are gradually losing the ability to separate capital from capitalists, but why?In our state the Left Front felt the need for capital from the first time it came to power. But the constituents of the Front came to a clear understanding among themselves. It was possible to explore avenues to progress through land reform in the agricultural sector, the introduction of the panchayati system of local governance, and the improvement of irrigation facilities. But a full solution of the state’s manifold problems was not possible through such measures, nor did such a solution come about.Many lakhs of urban unemployed still exist. It is not that that they are all utterly without any work, many have entered their names in the unemployment registers in the hope of better prospects. But to set them and their problems aside would be disastrous. We can see quite clearly how those who have completed school or college, or have graduated from technical institutes, have to run around madly in search of proper jobs; when they don’t get jobs they settle for petty, low-paying professions. On the other hand, thanks to globalisation, factory after factory is closing down, and those who once had jobs are now joining the ranks of the unemployed. At the same time, the growth of information technology has led to a constant reduction of the workforce in banks, the insurance sector, and suchlike. In such a situation, the state urgently needs more industries. In the sixties and seventies of the last century, many industrialists packed up and left from West Bengal, partly due to fear of the Left, partly due to the central government’s licence-permit raj and the shortsighted policies of the investment distribution in public enterprises or because of the price equalization policy.When the Left Front came to power towards the end of the 1970s, it was bound by certain promises made to the electorate which had brought it to power with a large mandate. It is not possible for this state to depend on private capital for a new phase of industrialisation. Why is this not possible? Capitalists are not only bound by their class affiliation, their investment decisions are largely dependent on the laws and ordinances passed by the central government. When private capitalists get involved in some new industrial enterprise, they as much as 90% of their capital for investment from various central government controlled financial institutions. If this is the case, why shouldn’t the Left Front government of West Bengal place its demands for investment capital directly to the central government, since this can be done without the mediation of private capitalists?At the time of its first coming to power, three demands were made by the Left Front government with a view to increasing investment in the state. (1) There should be a fundamental reworking of the centre-state relationship so that the major part of the country’s revenues are handed over to the states. (2) The central government should make provisions in its own budget for direct investment in West Bengal. The centre had made no significant investment in the state since the Durgapur Steel Project, some twenty years earlier. (3) Finally, the centre should direct the various financial institutions under its control, such as the National Insurance Corporation, the Unit Trust of India, ICICI, IDBI, IFCI, and so on, to pay renewed attention to increasing investment in West Bengal. Two facts need to be mentioned here. Following Independence, the central finance ministry had directed the financial institutions under its control that, since West Bengal was comparatively more developed than other states, there should be a temporary halt in investment in the state and more attention should be paid to other, less well-developed, states. Second, and equally important, if potential investors applied to the central government for licences at this time, they would be clearly informed that licences would not be issued if their intention was to invest in West Bengal, such licences would be readily available if they decided to invest elsewhere.It must be admitted that this three-pronged demand, made during the first phase of Left Front government in West Bengal, was not particularly effective. Following countrywide agitations, the centre was forced to set up a commission to examine centre-state relations, but the recommendations of the commission were not put into practice, nor were the states’ financial powers increased. (The situation now is much worse: the states’ financial crisis has not abated a bit, it has become more acute. Yet, West Bengal’s Left Front government, displaying great initiative, has handed over control of the primary source of revenue – that is sales tax – to the central government!) Second, it has not been possible to force the centre to make direct investment in various enterprises in the state. Nor has it been possible to make financial institutions under central control invest their excess funds in West Bengal.Private capital is guided by narrow class interest. The owners of such capital have no sympathy for the aims and aspirations, the dreams and desires of the people of West Bengal. It is my personal belief that chasing such capital is not only a waste of effort, it cannot be justified on ethical grounds either. On the other hand, the political context of our country has now changed completely. The same central government that paid no attention whatsoever to West Bengal’s Left Front government for 20-25 years, which looked upon it with hostility, is now, or so I am told, dependent on that same Left Front for its very survival. Left leaders themselves claim that the central government now stands or sits down as they command, why it even jumps when the Left asks it to! It is well-known that the financial institutions under central control are now sitting on piles of billions of rupees. They are even using these billions to gamble on the share markets. These financial institutions have never before seen such huge sums of money. Yet they remain strangely reticent when it comes to the question of direct investment. The reason being, they follow the dictates of the central finance ministry. The central finance ministry does not like investment in government enterprises, be they of the centre or of the states. Those who are in charge of this ministry are perfectly content to let private capitalists take on the responsibility for investment. They will provide funds to private capitalists, get intoxicated by the seductions of the share markets, but will pay no heed to the need for increased investment in government enterprises. The intimate relationship the central finance ministry has with the powers-that-be in Washington is an open secret.This is where the Left has a great opportunity for increasing investment in West Bengal. What prevents us from boldly telling the central government, which now stands or sits as we command, that it is now time for them to reverse their earlier discriminatory policies, that the government that once refused to bring about a change in centre-state relations, that declined to increase investment in West Bengal from the central budget, that prevented financial institutions from investing in West Bengal, all because of its Left leanings, should now make a u-turn where investment in West Bengal is concerned? Why should we not declare that West Bengal has no dearth of eminently skilled technologists, scientists, and women and men with entreprenual skills? The Left-inspired people of West Bengal are eager and willing to serve in enterprises under central guidance, they want to work under central leadership. Therefore, let the central government and the financial institutions under central control earmark at least ten thousand crores every year for investment in West Bengal.It is now possible for the Left to clearly declare that the yearly funds granted to West Bengal will be used for various government schemes, either on some central schemes, or on state schemes; or they may be used by and for some state and central government approved private-public joint ventures. Every government-created enterprise should function in a way that is designed to increase the industrial infrastructure of the state, according to guidelines laid out by the state. In these guidelines, employment generation will receive the highest priority, and in order to fulfill this, emphasis must obviously be given to the balanced existence of large, medium and small scale industries. Private capitalists will seek to garner glory by investing in enterprises here and there according to their own whims and fancies. But there is no analysis of whether such investments serve the interests of the state or the country as a whole. If we can act as I have outlined above, we can be freed from the clutches of such a situation.Why shouldn’t we be able to make such demands? Why have we forgotten the promises of the first stage of Left Front rule? Why are we informed, every day, of the many attempts at soliciting private capital, Indian or foreign, being made by the West Bengal government whenever we glance at the television or open a newspaper? It makes one cringe to read and hear these reports. We have such power in Parliament! We boast of possessing the power to topple the central government whenever we wish, yet why are we so diffident when it comes to exerting pressure on the centre to increase investment in our state? Ready funds for investment are lying around in the central financial institutions, yet we pay no heed to this, we keep busy in desperately seeking private capital.What saddens me most is that in seeking private capital we are displaying a particular kind of inferiority complex. Why are we sucking up to these capitalists? When private capitalists invest, they are not swayed by sweet invitations, they are guided by rigorous calculation. There are many reasons why they are now favourably inclined towards West Bengal. The massive investment made in the power sector in the first phase of Left Front rule means that, compared to other Indian states, the power situation in West Bengal is now abundant. Capitalists are thus, naturally, inclined towards this state. Besides, the environment and infrastructure in places like Hyderabad and Bangalore are gradually deteriorating. Even the spectre of a workers’ movement has raised its ugly head in such places! Such as has happened in Haryana’s Gurgaon region. And apart from this, the low cost at which skilled and efficient scientists and technologists are available in West Bengal is becoming increasingly difficult to find in other places.Those capitalists who want to come will do so for their own reasons, there’s no need to go out of our way to bring them here. If the time and enthusiasm being expended on them were to be spent in getting funds for investment in West Bengal through governmental channels, from the central financial institutions, then the interests of the state would be much better served.I want to say a couple of other things. At this very moment, our ministers are chasing after a capitalist who has set Bangalore afire. If he would kindly set up an IT factory in our state, we would be eternally grateful. He wants a hundred acres of land, and our government is instantly ready to provide him with the land. Yet this same capitalist brazenly declared, just a few days ago, “Ninety-seven and a half percent of my outfit’s net profits come from the US, Germany and Japan. It makes no difference to me whether the poor of India live or die.” That a Left government would seek to bestow favours on such an individual – this I cannot reconcile with my conscience.Make a few enquiries, and you’ll realise that those capitalists who have promised to invest in West Bengal (and who, in some instances, have also kept such promises) are really interested in the acquisition of land. Populations are increasing the world over, in every country. Land prices are shooting up ever higher and higher. Many capitalists have applied for land from different state governments only as an investment they can make a quick profit on. They claim that if they don’t get such-and-such quantity of land, it will be difficult for them to make investments! Those in power in our state ought to make some calculations before distributing land to these capitalists - just how much land is required for investment in different kinds of industry, here or abroad; what type of factory requires what quantity of land – otherwise they may live to regret their decision in the future. But the last word, which is also the first, is, how many jobs will be created from the kinds of investment that are being spoken of? If investing fifty thousand crores creates jobs for five hundred people, what noble service will be rendered to the nation by such investment?Of course, I hear another kind of argument nowadays. The capitalists want money, there’s no need to ask too many questions about why they want it, how does it matter if they want to build a golf course, or a pleasure city, or a hotel or a hospital? How does it matter if the increase in direct and indirect employment from these enterprises is only marginal; the profits these capitalists make will be used somewhere or the other to increase the capital of the country, leading to an improvement in the nation’s commerce and industry. What is good for the country is good for everyone, including the working classes.But is this really so? It is by no means certain that the profits reaped by foreign capital will be used for investment somewhere or the other in the country. And the profits reaped by Indian capitalists will be used by them to invest for their own benefit, not for the benefit of the nation or its working class. The capitalists’ doctrine is to exploit the working class to increase the margin of their own profits. They have never deviated from this doctrine, nor will they do so now. So why should we go out of our way to make things easier for these capitalists, such as by announcing in advance our opposition to the right to strike work in some industry or the other?Let me, with some diffidence, mention another example. We have announced, idealistically, that we will not allow our development efforts to be tainted by US government funds. Our promise has been made as a mark of our disgust at the hellish destruction unleashed by the US government all over the world since the end of the Second World War. Yet, why should we turn our faces away from the history of thousands upon thousands of communist leaders and workers killed with horrifying cruelty some forty/forty-one years ago, by the US government supported General Suharto of Indonesia? Why should we plead with those bosom buddies of Suharto the Salim Group, to invest their capital in West Bengal? Who does not know that a large part of the wealth accumulated by Suharto and his cronies from the brutal oppression of the Indonesian people forms a significant proportion of the assets of the Salim Group?It is our historical duty not to celebrate darkness but to vanquish it. I am often reminded of a poem by Jibanananda Das. Have we suddenly lost our way in the quest to defeat darkness, have we forgotten how to end the darkness and embraced it instead?

[Translated from the original Bangla by Samantak Das]