Sunday, September 21, 2008



The front page of The Telegraph yesterday gave a very good indication of West Bengal’s present and future. One item told the readers that the Karnataka government had offered the Tatas the best possible terms to take the Nano project out of Singur. A second conveyed the news that the German wholesaler, Metro Cash & Carry, was evaluating its options about launching in Calcutta. And a third gave the grim tidings of a joint team from top American companies dropping Calcutta from its itinerary. The moral is clear: investors are becoming wary of putting their money in West Bengal. If all investment, as the Keynesian quip goes, is an act of faith, then investors are losing their faith fast in West Bengal. The reasons for this loss are also clear, and again the three reports serve as good illustrations. In the case of Singur, the intransigence of one political leader, Mamata Banerjee, has posed a threat to one of the biggest investments that the state has received in recent memory. In the case of Metro, the inordinate delay in getting an agri-product marketing licence has prompted the company to review its plans about staying on in West Bengal. The power to grant the licence lies with a board run by a Left Front partner, in other words with the government of the state. The American team is not coming because it no longer sees, given the post-Singur situation, West Bengal as investor-friendly.

In all three cases, politics or political agitations have stood in the way of investment and economic development. The form that this agitation takes is either obstruction or disruption, and it cuts across political boundaries. The Left’s path to power in West Bengal from the mid-1960s is strewn with closed jute mills and the legacy of fleeing investors. Ms Banerjee has now decided to hoist the Left with its own petard. Her agenda is very clear. She is out to embarrass the Left Front government at any cost, even at the price of ruining the state’s chances of economic development. She also wants to project herself as a leader of the poor and the dispossessed. She is doing, perhaps consciously, exactly what the communists did to the Congress government in the 1960s. The chief minister of West Bengal wants to industrialize the state. But there is no guarantee that his party and its allies have given up the politics of obstruction and disruption.

It would appear that West Bengal and the people who live here are caught in a hapless situation. This may not be the case. The people have to decide if they are prepared for industrialization and its consequences. If the answer is overwhelmingly in the affirmative, then are the people willing to take the necessary political steps to ensure that industrialization can proceed unhindered, and work culture allowed to flourish? It is easy always to blame politicians. But in a democracy, politicians are also of the people.