Well-intentioned speeches and admission of past errors do not redeem time. The chief minister of West Bengal, Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, has earned applause from industrialists for his speech at the meeting of the national council of the Confederation of Indian Industry. But he will be naïve to expect that speeches will bring capital back to West Bengal. Mr Bhattacharjee was applauded because he admitted that the left had made a mistake in the past by not paying attention to productivity and work culture. He spoke also of enforcing discipline on the trade unions which the left had nurtured and made irresponsible. The chief minister was confident that a change in attitude was taking place and that capital, work culture and productivity would soon thrive in the state. Mr Bhattacharjee is, of course, carrying the burdens of the past. From his first day as chief minister, he has been talking of wooing investments back to the state and of the need to transform West Bengal through economic development. Very little investment has materialized. Investors have not been lured by promises and pious sentiments. They are waiting for a signal that ground realities have changed. No such signal has been forthcoming. In fact, investors will have observed how the government continues to drag its feet over the privatization of Great Eastern Hotel. The signals, such as they are, suggest that the West Bengal government has words but no substance.
The signals are also very confused due to the crackle emanating from New Delhi. If Mr Bhattacharjee speaks in Calcutta about the need for economic reforms and about a new outlook, his comrades in the headquarters of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in New Delhi peddle still in old wares like socialism, the need for planning, the importance of the public sector and so on. The left has a unique record of opposing every single reform in the economic arena. Industrialists cannot but be confused and suspicious. Mr Bhattacharjee’s sentiments seem too good to be true in the context of the pronouncements of the CPI(M) national leadership and the party’s performance in the Lok Sabha. Faith, which is at the heart of any investment decision, cannot be born under these confusing and doubtful circumstances.
Mr Bhattacharjee is doing — or at least saying — enough. But he faces that unenviable situation in which enough is not good enough. Moreover, what he is trying to achieve in West Bengal is not something unprecedented. Economic reforms are already in place in a number of other states which are surging ahead. West Bengal is a laggard because of its past which hangs heavy on the present. The pace of change is slow, painfully so. Mr Bhattacharjee as yet has failed to set the pace. Optimism in West Bengal may well mean accepting a permanent latecomer status.