The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Work culture can change only if paid holidays are eliminated

There is no halfway house to industrialization. The project involves not only an active wooing of capital and investment and the creation of an infrastructure that facilitates the working of capital but also a change in the mindset and a change in the culture of work.

The West Bengal government under the leadership of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee is pursuing the first of the above aims but is woefully laggard in the second sphere.

Since he took over the reins of office as chief minister, Bhattacharjee has brought about a radical change in the climate of investment in West Bengal. This change has been possible at one level because of his own unusual candour. At every single industry forum and at every meeting with potential investors, he has gone out of his way to admit that in the past the Left Front government had made a series of mistakes in the way it handled economic affairs, especially the matter of getting investment to the state. From this starting point, he has now come a step further. In a context where the leaders of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in New Delhi are making various kinds of adverse noises about foreign direct investment, Bhattacharjee has told any number of gatherings of businessmen and industrialists that his party leadership's stance notwithstanding, he would welcome foreign investment in West Bengal. Investors have been struck by Bhattacharjee's apparent sincerity and honesty about past mistakes. Most of them have also been convinced about his commitment to the industrialization project in West Bengal because words have been backed by actions. Bhattacharjee and his industry minister, Nirupam Sen, have set up processes to clear projects fast and without too many bureaucratic hassles. The results are already visible: investments have begun to come into West Bengal. The good work has to continue for the trickle to become a flow.

This change that Bhattacharjee has led is the product of a certain set of circumstances. The CPI(M) since its birth was fashioned as a party of the opposition. Its political practice was rooted in direct action articulated through agitations, strikes and the destruction of public property. Even during its first stint in power, in the days of the United Front in the late Sixties, it did not deviate from this political practice. From 1977, the Left Front, spearheaded by the CPI(M), has been continuously in power. This has inevitably made the CPI(M) reflect upon its own position, its own role and attitude to governance. There was the realization that its career in power in West Bengal was going to be a long and significant one. The CPI(M) could not go down in history as the party that ruled West Bengal for a number of decades and ended up by ruining the state. It could no longer think of itself as the party of the opposition but had to refashion itself as the party of governance. There was the further realization, as the party entrenched itself in the rural world through a policy of land reforms, that no successful programme of land reforms could be sustained without a policy of industrialization to support it. It is one of those significant coincidences of history that all this happened when, for altogether different reasons, the Indian economy was being liberalized, and, at a completely different level, the socialist world was collapsing with its many lies, deceptions, inefficiencies and oppressions becoming exhibits of history.

It was not an easy task for the party leadership in West Bengal to make the party and its cadre change its mode of politics. The CPI(M) had to accept an altered rhetoric in which hostility to capital had to be replaced by its exact opposite. The party changed gear from agitation to governance. Over the years, trade unionism has become muted, less militant and not violent. It is hard to assess how far down the line the change and the altered priorities have percolated, but, in a party like the CPI(M), driven by a centralized leadership, the leadership's decision has an overwhelming impact.

It is Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee's singular achievement that he has completely transformed the image of West Bengal. From a state relegated for three decades to the margins of investment, it is being viewed as a viable and attractive investment destination. The decision to invest in West Bengal will, of course, not be taken on Bhattacharjee's words alone. Investment will be an act of faith based on certain economic calculations. Bhattacharjee cannot influence the economic calculations but he is certainly working to create conditions to inspire faith.

It is the other leg of the project ' the realm of work culture and of mindset ' that gives cause for concern. Witness the government's response to the high court's ruling on bandhs. It has decided to appeal against the high court's verdict which says that bandhs are illegal and further instructs the government to deduct salaries of those government employees who are absent on the day of the bandh. The state government should actually welcome the order instead of appealing against it. A bandh does nothing more than provide an opportunity to enjoy a paid holiday. This is an attitude that is antithetical to work culture. The pro-investment chief minister should ensure that his government does not convey the impression that it has a sneaking sympathy for bandhs.

Such a suspicion is fed by the government's attitude to the court order and also by its failure to condemn the bandh called by CITU earlier in the year. In fact, on that particular bandh day in February, many of the ministers stayed away from work. The chief minister was the exception. It is difficult to believe that the government really cannot foil a bandh and give to the city a semblance of normalcy. It is also difficult to accept that a political party which can bring Calcutta to a standstill by organizing a rally that summons lakhs of cadre, cannot help a city to function on the occasion of a bandh. Government and party together can provide a sense of security to those who are willing to go to work on a bandh day, security that will guarantee that transport will be normal and violence will be absent. It is a matter of exercising the requisite political will. Is the CPI(M) up to it'

Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has said and done many things that no communist leader would dream of saying and doing. He has thus struck the right chords in many who were not previously known for their pro-left sympathies. If he acts now to stop bandhs and to counteract the tendency to enjoy a paid holiday, he will earn the support and the gratitude of the day labourer who misses his daily wage and the businessman who wants to carry on with his work.

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