The debate between two pairs of economists, which made the front page last month, continues to rage. Its ideological dimensions are evident to everyone. What has not been noticed, however, that the pairs have been discussing the performance of states that have little to do with them. Jagdish Bhagwati, the admirer of Narendra Modi’s Gujarat, is a Gujarati; but he was brought up by his judge father in Bombay, and escaped thence to Britain and America. Amartya Sen, the admirer of Kerala, grew up in Santiniketan; after some education in Bengal, he too escaped in the same direction. His compeer, Jean Drèze, is of Belgian origin; though it is difficult to pin him down, he is best characterized as a kurta-clad Lucknowi. Arvind Subramanian has just as little to do with Kerala or Gujarat.
It would be of great interest to know what these argumentative economists would have to say about Bengal, and indeed, why it did not occur to them to debate its performance. After all, this state fell from being India’s most developed province to something far less distinguished; some impudent people would also say that it declined from being at the pinnacle of Indian culture to somewhere near the bottom. It has also seen a political revolution; from virtually the world’s only communist state, it has turned into just another populist state. Nowhere is there a greater contrast between the potential and the reality. From verdant valleys to towering peaks, it has some of the most spectacular sights of India; but somehow, hordes of tourists overfly these attractions and prefer to haggle in the flesh markets of Bangkok. At least in the eyes of the state’s inhabitants, there is no more interesting state in the world; but the world does not share their opinion.
What is it that makes them avert their eyes, and what would open their eyes to the treasures that are to be found here? It may be that Calcutta is a tough city, and that one needs bristles to survive in it. It may be that its taxi and rickshaw drivers are a slick lot who can be tackled only by experienced intellectual wrestlers. It may be that naïve tourists do not know the simple rule that roads are for pedestrians and pavements for hawkers. It may also be that these are all ignorant prejudices of people who briefly visited this city to write malignant tales about it. These are hypotheses that should fascinate trained minds, whether from Tientsin or Timbuctoo. The failure lies not in the state’s marketing strategy, but in its inability to identify the market. Bengal is not for the common, run-of-the-mill tourist; it is just the place for clever souls that can penetrate its complex personality. It is child’s play to write scholarly books about Gujarat or Kerala; let a thousand scholars come and scale Bengal.