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Atal asks Bengal: what went wrong'

Calcutta, July 16: So, what happened in Bengal in 1981'

January 1: Lockout at Hooghly Jute Mill.

November 12: Strike and lockout simultaneously in cinema halls.

November 13: A second round of lockout at Hooghly Jute Mill.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee did not mention any of these incidents but he had them at the back of his mind when he asked today: what went wrong from 1981, when Bengal’s per capita income dropped below the national average for the first time'

That was in the 128th year of the venerable Bengal Chamber of Commerce. It was also the fourth year of the Left Front government. Today, on the 150th anniversary of the oldest business lobby east of Suez, the Prime Minister appealed: think, why business left Bengal' — as Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee listened, all attention.

“These questions are best answered by the people of Bengal themselves and their representatives. Indeed, I have heard many Bengalis, who have gone out of Bengal, ask these questions. Outsiders can only surmise that the arrival of dogmatism saw the departure of development. Sometimes in the affairs of organisations, provinces and even nations, extreme positions rule the roost for some time, but the price of folly is paid for years and decades to come,” Vajpayee said.

Wouldn’t Bhattacharjee know' Much as the chief minister has been trying to tell the world this is not the Bengal of your nightmares, not too many are convinced. Why, only yesterday Ajay Piramal, who sits at the head of a pharmaceuticals empire, met him, ostensibly to discuss investments, but talked about the union problem — Citu it is, the CPM’s labour wing — he was facing in his Calcutta office.

1981 still lives in 2003. As if on cue, Vajpayee said: “Life is forcing us to find new answers to old questions.”

No one should know better — on the debris of a mosque, foundations are being sought to be laid for a temple and a mosque.

Industrialist B.M. Khaitan, in the audience with several of his fellow Bengal-based businessmen, said later: “Vajpayeeji said what he had to say. He also promised that the Centre will assist the state for any upcoming project.”

It’s an irony that as the CPM works on a national alliance with the Congress, a party it had blamed for 20 years for keeping Bengal backward, to fight the BJP, a BJP Prime Minister tells Bhattacharjee that he can no longer complain about Delhi’s stepmotherly attitude.

“Our track record for the past five years shows that we do not follow the policy of discrimination on political and ideological grounds,” he said.

“I urge the state government to create a strong pro-business and pro-investment environment…. The entire government machinery, right down to the last clerk, should gear itself up with a new work culture and a new pro-growth mindset.”

He was happy to see winds of change were blowing, though mildly so far.

Maybe he does not know enough. After the meeting with Piramal, the chief minister intervened and within 24 hours won an assurance from the agitating workers.

Principal secretary Arun Bhattacharya said: “They have assured us there will be no further disruption of work. They have moved the labour tribunal and they will wait for the verdict.”

Piramal has been informed of the change of wind.

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