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A clear stamp of approval

india Updated: Apr 20, 2011 13:40 IST
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As I sit down to write this article, an afternoon in the distant past surfaces to my mind. If I am not wrong, the year was 1967 and a boisterous crowd had gathered in front of a gate located on the western side of the Raj Bhavan. The outgoing chief minister of West Bengal, I was told, used to live in a quarter on the Raj Bhavan compound and the crowd was waiting in merriment for an opportunity to boo at him when he finally drove out of his government accommodation.

The political stalwarts who succeeded in throwing out the government at the time were, of course, thrown away by the wheels of democracy but they had probably not failed altogether. Their triumph lay in assuring the people of this state that democracy worked, even if the subsequent picture was not entirely rosy. Finally though, it was the Left that was catapulted to power, and now, after more than 34 years, many analysts have begun to suspect that democracy was no more than a chimera during the Left rule.

If democracy is truly at stake, we are back again to 1967 and it is the Trinamool that has assumed the mantle of the saviour. But the situation is not exactly the same. It is no street mob now that has gathered around the Left Front’s bête noire. The Trinamool chief’s padayatras, covering each and every corner of Kolkata, are attracting well-known faces belonging to the urban intelligentsia. And this appears to be a paradox, since snooty Bengali intellectuals, many of them groomed in Leftist ideology, were never known in the past to have considered her as a person deserving anything more than hoots of derision. Yet the very same urban elite appears to have done a volte-face now by elevating her to the status of a messiah come to relieve the “tortured masses” from the clutches of a perceived “demon”.

Her party has produced a pre-poll manifesto moreover that bears a clear stamp of the blessings of the business community. Going by its elegant production, it is doubtful if any political organisation in this country has ever produced a document that had shone so literally. The party’s own manifesto, produced prior to the Lok Sabha elections in 2009, looks like a poor and distant cousin at this stage of the game. There is little doubt that this is no collection of street slogans. Competent, thinking minds have been at work, proving it would seem that the aspirants of power are as capable of intellectual labour as they are of providing evidence of numerical superiority.

Needless to say though, the contents of the document are at least as important as its form. Part A of the English version consists of “irrefutable evidence of a systematic decline of West Bengal under Left rule”. Meticulously worked out figures and charts covering the period 1975-76 through 2008-09 are used to illustrate our destitution.

West Bengal has been shown to have faltered not only in manufacture, which is well-known, but also in agriculture, which was unknown to the rest of the country. The dismal state of the state’s finances is emphasised, as well as the wretched condition of education and healthcare. Generally speaking, there is much truth in what has been written, though one cannot be entirely sure about the evaluation of agriculture. Also, the state has probably made significant progress in secondary and higher secondary education, a fact the manifesto bypassed.

Part 2 describes what the party considers the short and long term (200 and 1,000 days) tasks before it if it comes to power. The very first item in the agenda reads “Industrial Revival and Employment Generation” and this is immediately followed by the statement “The basic industrial strategy is to create massive employment through development of the manufacturing sector”.

One cannot forget that it was this very party that drove the Nano plant out of the state in the interest of “unwilling farmers”. Describing industrialisation as its primary goal therefore appears to be a way of ingratiating itself with urban society, which was not amused by the departure of the Tatas.

Also, the stated industrialisation policy is not too different from what the seventh Left Front government had in mind, but tried to implement incorrectly in its supreme arrogance.

To distinguish itself from the Left, the Trinamool points out therefore that it will achieve its ends by enhancing “the ease of doing business by radically cutting back obstructive rules” and harassment of small entrepreneurs. In other words, cadre-induced corruption will be eliminated and, among other things, around new 250 ITIs have been promised in the first 200 days of its rule. It is highly improbable of course that the corruption that has built up over 34 years can be weeded out in either 200 or 1,000 days. Similarly, can 250 ITIs be even planned for in 200 days? It calls for land allocation, faculty recruitment, the drawing up of syllabi, identifying competent administrative staff and a host of other matters.

The first 200 days cover other goals, too, from agro-industries, tourism, health sector upgrades, rural development to computerisation of bill payments. (An important step in the last mentioned direction was completed by the last Left-nominated mayor of Kolkata.) Each one of the objectives is commendable to say the least, even if infeasible within the specified time frame. Nonetheless, one should wish them well in their endeavours, even if a quarter of the plans can be completed in the next five years. They constitute a grand plan and few can question their merit.

Looks-wise, the Left manifesto comes nowhere near the Trinamool affair. In fact, it resembles whatever it has always resembled. Sheets full of political slogans against imperialist forces and empty, financially unviable promises, printed on low quality, proletarian-friendly paper. Its only distinguishing mark lies in the assurance it has given that it will try to correct itself. The admission of error goes a long way, of course, though the bandhs that are still being called and the violence perpetrated every now and then raise questions about its ability to cleanse itself.

By comparison, the Trinamool document too is marked by the conspicuous absence of any reference to the role it played in driving the Tatas away from Singur. The bottom line for both manifestos lies in industrialisation and employment generation. Even if this is achieved by converting the state into a railway colony, the common man should not feel too despondent. Wisdom dictates that something is always better than nothing, whoever it is that delivers it.

Finally, going back to where we started, the Trinamool’s greatest contribution lies in making democracy wake up from its sluggish slumber. The fact that intelligent minds are openly supporting the party indicates that there were undercurrents of resentment against the Left that failed to surface in the absence of viable alternatives. The Trinamool’s success in the Singur battle, even if severely damaging for the economy, produced a leader who could be depended upon to stop the Left in its tracks.

This is good news for democracy of course. However, “All that glitters is not gold” and the Trinamool leader is hopefully aware that some at least among those who have gathered around her have personal agendas in mind rather than the welfare of society.

And let us not forget that the euphoria of 1967 was followed briefly by one of the darkest periods in the history of this state.

( The writer is former professor of economics, Indian Statistical Institute )