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TALE OF TWO MINISTERS

While Mr Vajpayee comments on West Bengal and Mr Bhattacharjee responds, Calcutta and the state stay where they were

Calcutta has never had a good press. Once Rudyard Kipling, in the days when the city was the capital of India, had condemned it, Calcutta’s fate had been sealed. Things did not change even after the transition from the raj to the republic. Jawaharlal Nehru disparaged the capital of West Bengal as the city of processions. His grandson, Rajiv Gandhi, the self-styled harbinger of the 21st century, called Calcutta a dying city. On Wednesday, the present prime minister, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, continued the tradition of Calcutta-baiting. Mr Vajpayee, to be fair to him, referred to the whole of West Bengal and its decline after 1981. He was speaking on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the Bengal Chamber of Commerce and thus his ambit of reference was the whole of West Bengal. But his barb was directed at Calcutta since the city drives the state’s development. Mr Vajpayee asked the residents of West Bengal to reflect on the fact that the state is a laggard in terms of the national economic performance. The year 1981 is significant, since it marked an early signpost after the left had come to power and its policies had begun to take effect. Mr Vajpayee implied that the state’s plight was a reflection of the left’s propensity to cling to dogma and an extreme ideology. This had resulted in the flight of capital, poor economic performance and an erosion of work culture.

Mr Vajpayee cannot be faulted on the facts on which his scathing comments were based. The flight of capital, which began in the Sixties when violence had engulfed the state, continued without respite in the Eighties. By the Nineties, it was obvious that West Bengal was a red desert where only slogan-mongering and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) bloomed. The then chief minister, Mr Jyoti Basu, recognized this. In a valiant effort to reinvent his legacy, he decided to woo capital, even foreign capital, back to the state. It was not easy turning around the behemoth called CPI(M) to be capitalist-friendly. Mr Basu’s successor, Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, continues this enterprise and does so more efficiently and with a greater degree of credibility. But this has not changed the economic face of West Bengal. Investors are yet to recover their faith in a state where the red flag flutters and where strikes and bandhs are virtually monthly occurrences. Despite Mr Bhattacharjee’s best efforts, nobody is fully convinced that the CPI(M) has changed its spots.

The unchanging mindset is manifest in Mr Bhattacharjee’s response to Mr Vajpayee’s criticism. Instead of reflection, there was a knee-jerk political reaction from the chief minister. That Mr Vajpayee also spouts an ideology and is surrounded by fanatics cannot take away from the harm the Left Front government has done to West Bengal. There may be alarming similarities in the situations that both the prime minister and chief minister find themselves in, and this is reason for concern. But smugness is the middle name of most Indian politicians. If Mr Vajpayee displayed a remarkable lack of self-consciousness, Mr Bhattacharjee did the same in his response. In politics, rivals often mirror each other. In all this, Calcutta remains where it was — no longer quite Kipling’s city of dreadful nights nor quite dying, but with processions continuing to lead West Bengal no man knows where.

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