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HARD TIMES

There was a time not long ago when Bengal could do no wrong. Its government had the right colour for the time. The Reds supported the Central government which lacked majority in Parliament. In return, they could run as large debts as they fancied, without a worry about repaying. The Trinamul Congress ended their 34-year rule. It might have continued the sweet relationship with the Centre. But its leader chose to part ways. There was no reason any more for the Central finance minister to give Calcutta unlimited, or even limited credit. The chief minister found it most unfair that the feckless communists had a blank cheque, and that she was supposed to repay the enormous debts they had piled up. As is her wont, she went to Delhi and gave the powers that be a piece of her mind. The finance minister of that time shared her language, so she could communicate her feelings in a convincing, passionate manner. She made herself heard, and he put off collecting debts. Her eloquence and her finance ministerís low-key diplomacy have carried the day to date.

A new political formation will soon rule Delhi, led by an irascible chief minister from a western littoral state. From time to time, he has ventured into the Trinamul bastion and made characteristically clever, provocative election speeches. Some of them touched a nerve, and received a reply from the chief minister in her forthright manner. That would have been fine in the days of the last prime minister; he never took to heart politiciansí bursts of temper. The next prime minister is likely to be less forgiving; in fact, he has the reputation for sanguine vengefulness. Hence the war of words may lead eventually to significant financial damage.

That may not worry the chief minister. After all, a debtor is always in a stronger position: while the creditor can only admonish her, she can simply refuse to repay loans. There are also favours from the Centre which do not depend on who rules there; finance commissions divide them up between states on the basis of need and effort. But that is as much as Bengal can expect from the next government; the times of special favours are over, and times of special disfavours may be coming. So a time of austerity is approaching for Bengal, and it is time for the state government to begin preparing for it. Till now, development was just a subject for speeches, and the chief minister could go west once a year and give an unconvincing spiel about the great attractions of the state. That will not be enough. The state government should begin identifying specific investment projects, whether it be in tourism, fisheries, or trade with Bangladesh, and approaching specific industrialists to take them up.