There are more similarities between Asim Dasgupta and Amit Mitra than most electoral opponents in the 2011 Bengal polls. Both have been trained in economics from Presidency College, both have taught the subject, both love to dress in white, both are fitness freaks, and both have four-letter names of which three letters are common.
But the similarities end there. It would be difficult to find a pair of contestants in the 294 seats who would differ on such fundamental aspects of political economy as this duo battling it out in Khardah, which lies in the heart of the rusty industrial belt of North 24-Parganas.
Elections are fought on the streets and they are not the best places to discuss and dissect economic policies. Yet, this is precisely the domain that has been the focus of Amit’s campaign.
A few years in the government give any opponent enough fodder, and Asim’s 24 years as finance minister has given Amit more than enough.
Asim is a giant. He has been unvanquished from the constituency since 1987, the year he took over the reins of the finance department. He has presented 24 budgets, a feat none in this country can rival. The PhD from MIT has chaired the empowered group of ministers on finance and has played an important role in rolling out Value Added Tax (Vat), one of the most sweeping tax reform measures in independent India.
But that is precisely as far as his reputation goes. While Asim has notched up personal milestones, his constituency, and his state, continued to suffer.
In 2006, he won by a margin of more than 40,000 votes. Overall, Asim has a profile that would have unnerved his opponent Amit, whom CPI(M) leaders such as Gautam Deb and Biman Bose have referred to as an outsider. CPI(M) politburo leaders have also tried to taint Amit with the BJP brush, with Sitaram Yechury ‘alleging’ that he organised a meet to showcase Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi’s achievements in the UK, to attract investors for the state.
While Yechury never explained why such skill, which his own comrades in Bengal struggled to muster, would be a drawback, Amit has chosen to ignore such jibes and focus on the Achilles’ heel of his illustrious opponent, which has been showing up in plenty. “While the finance minister has presented one zero deficit budget after another, the state has run up monstrous debts close to R2 lakh crore. There is no money left from its own tax resources after paying for past debts,” said Amit to HT.
It is the biggest problem that has crippled public finance in West Bengal, he argues, resulting in a situation where development has completely stopped and the government is borrowing just to keep on paying salary and pension, he argues. While such argument is not exactly the fodder for election rallies, Amit is harping on the lack of governance and the strong winds of change in the state to ask for votes.
“While the finance minister was busy with bigger issue such as VAT, one industry after another has closed down in his constituency. The entire belt has now been reduced to a real estate operator and speculators paradise,” said Gobindo Deb, a resident of Ek Ford Road in Khardah. Outside the political arena, Amit is an achiever too, and combines skills that would have made him, ironically, a darling of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee in his quest for investments.
A self-confessed student of Manmohan Singh and Amartya Sen in Delhi School of Economics, Amit strode the interface of industry and politicians like a colossus, reshaping chamber of commerce Ficci into a powerhouse. A member on various policy-making bodies of even the Prime Minister, Amit’s network among industrialists is one of the best in the country and abroad.
While that may not mean much to the average voter in search of better water supply in the municipality taps and reopening of closed factories, Amit is banking on the popularity on the Trinamool chief and the strong anti-incumbency factor to win the ballot.
“Trust us, we would change Bengal,” is the USP he is highlighting while knocking on the doors of his constituency.
Though his party is running down Amit as an outsider in Khardah, soft-spoken Asim is a picture of dignity himself, refraining from any disparaging remarks about his opponent, a gesture being returned in ample measure.
Trinamool workers are portraying Amit, the ‘outsider’, as an original resident of Bhowanipore. “How can the son of Haridas Mitra, former deputy speaker of West Bengal Assembly and Indian National Army activist be called an outsider,” they are asking. Amit’s maternal grandfather was Suresh Chandra Bose, elder brother of Subhas Chandra Bose.
While the Asim-Amit struggle is being played out on the streets of Khardah, the real drama would be reserved on the sidelines. Asim has scant respect for fiscal responsibility; Amit is a strong believer in it. Asim embraces debt as a duck takes to water; Amit abhors debt and is a firm believer that Bengal’s expenditure needs to be restructured.
It is rumoured that Amit may be given the unenvious task of restructuring Bengal’s public finance, if he can win more votes than Asim on April 27. The real battle will begin afterwards.
Battling Asim’s legacy will surely be a bigger fight than slaying Asim himself.