The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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In any place where things have not changed for a long time, the people may miss the early signs when changes start happening. The dead weight of the barren years so numbs the faculties that it becomes difficult to make sense of these first signs and therefore accept them for what they are. Something similar is happening in West Bengal — the first stirrings of a change few had predicted and fewer still would accept as real. One cannot fault the doubters because there is just an outline, still hazy, of the new horizon that barely conceals the old; because the changing soundbites still seem more a Babel of confusion than a new language of clarity.

There is so much of the old order strewn all around that it is not easy to see the emerging scene. Calcutta is still a picture of all that is wrong with a city — dirty, overcrowded, slow and, above all, quite visibly despondent. We still have our Bangla bandhs and Brigade rallies that disrupt life and dampen the spirit. Most of us still have the mindset, itself a product of the hopeless years, that revels in every opportunity of shirking work. Much of the political rhetoric stinks of old rubbish.

So what is changing' One could talk of new investments that are here or are on their way. Or of the visible signs of a changing horizon like the classy ITC hotel standing proud on what was literally a garbage dump not so long ago, the flyovers that are fast coming up, the shiny new shopping malls or the dazzle of entertainment options, the likes of which the city has not had for many, many years.

The signals are reaching other shores as well. An example is the return of a Japanese construction company which had a tough time working on the metro railway project in the Seventies and is now back after 20-odd years to work on the bridge across the Hooghly to connect Raichak to Haldia.

The real change seems, however, to be taking place in the minds — of the government, the political parties and most importantly, the people. The change is in the emerging conviction that things must change simply because they cannot go on as before. Sociologists tell us that this is the most important thing in the dynamics of change — this perception that you must change or perish.

But a change in perceptions alone does not bring about a regeneration. History is replete with stories of kingdoms and peoples who had a premonition of their decline and fall and simply resigned themselves to the inevitable. Bengal looked like one such doomed place where the people seemed to have lost their will to change, not just to compete with others, but even for their own sake.

The main reason for this was that the ruling leftists not only resisted the change but also clouded the atmosphere so much with their musty politics that all talk of change was made to look suspect. They had once been agents of change themselves, ushering in land reforms and ensuring job security and better wages for workers, teachers and other sections of the society. But, at the same time, they created the culture that sowed the seeds of a decline. Gradually, Marxist politics and government came to symbolize the death of private enterprise and individual excellence.

Ironically, the Marxists themselves are changing to act as catalysts for the next generation of changes. The people’s new-found desire for change thus finds an expression in the changing political climate. One can argue whether the political change is the cause — or the effect — of the change in the people’s perceptions. Not just the leftists, but all political parties would like to think that they move in step with the public consciousness, which they try, in their different ways, to shape and influence.

One can also argue if the leftists’ new mantras are due to a change of their ideological heart or to the force of the new economic realities. They still pretend to be committed to leftism, trying to find an ideological rationale for the changes. The fact remains, however, that the Marxists’ policies are changing in almost every sphere — industry, agriculture, education, health and even in labour.

Central to all these changes is their new realization of the roles of the state and the market. Partyspeak still sees salvation in the all-powerful state, but the facts on the ground have forced them to accept the market as a better bet than the state for the people’s economic wellbeing. It is naïve to expect the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or others in the Left Front, to sacrifice all their socialist ideas at the altar of the marketplace. They can still worship false gods but they now know that only the market gods can answer the prayers for Bengal’s economic recovery.

In simple terms, they have realized that what matters is what works. No ideology matters if it does not work and theirs clearly has not worked. No wonder the government is at last raising fees and taxes. The immediate aim may be to try and rescue the state’s collapsing finances; but the more important message is that governments can no longer be run as charities.

Naturally, the changing policies have raised a din — and a stink — in the left camp. Hence the new tensions within the Left Front over changes in agriculture, education or health policies. The opposition of the Forward Bloc or that of the Revolutionary Socialist Party to the new agriculture policy or the fee hikes in health and education is fundamentally different from earlier sagas of intra-front bickerings over the share of ministries or electoral seats. These parties are not convinced that the changes are necessary or they are simply not ready for them.

Even the CPI(M) is still unsure about the labour policies its government should follow in the new industrial scenario that is slowly taking shape. But it now knows that it cannot follow the old policies that stressed the conflicting, rather than the productive, relations between labour and capital. That is why we have the party’s trade union leader, Chittabrata Mazumdar, occasionally striking the old militant note. The point, however, is that this note now sounds odd; it no longer rings true.

But how true is the Marxists’ changing face' Can they afford to alienate the workers and peasants who, and not the middle classes, remain their principal votebank' The CPI(M) seems to have truly accepted that the idea of change alone can make not only Bengal’s economy but also its own politics work. The other big question that faces them is essentially the same that confronts all reformers and that is: who benefits from the reforms anyway'

More than the Bharatiya Janata Party at the Centre, the CPI(M) needs to convince the people that the changes will benefit all sections of the people and not just the affluent classes. But one thing is for sure — the party and its government can no longer afford to fake or fail the new initiative.

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