West Bengal is a Work in Progress. Or that's what it appears like from the unfinished flyovers, the roads proposed to be widened, the airports waiting to be built and the new schools, colleges, universities and hospitals for which foundation stones were being laid till the moment the Election Commission banned the distribution of such promissory tablets. Indira Gandhi had 'gifted' Calcutta (not yet renamed Kolkata then) the Metro Rail in the early 70s. While the work crawled on, she lost power and grabbed it back and got killed, and the CPI(M) overran Writers' Buildings for eternity, as it were. Kolkata Metro at last became functional in 1984. But, since then, it covers only 25 km - against Delhi's 200 km - and that too in one direction, from north to south.
Tardiness is Bengal's hallmark. In Delhi, for every cup of coffee drunk at the café of the India International Centre (IIC), there are a dozen bitchy remarks passed on who made the millions, and how, by looting the treasury in the name of the Commonwealth Games. But nobody notices that the city is wearing a new look in just about a year. It's so unlike Bengal, which has less corruption than Delhi, maybe, but absolutely no progress.
What is it that jams the brake so painfully on every project in Bengal? Is it because the state is too full of leftists? That's doubtful. IIC itself has perhaps more leftists per square metre than today's College Street Coffee House, if leftism in a general sense means the caption you wear on your T-shirt - from saving the Narmada to condemning the allied forces for bombing Libya. In Delhi, Mumbai or Bengaluru, to be a leftist is an identity issue - like being male or vegetarian. In Bengal, it's a licence. It's a proclamation of one's right to get paid without work, and to collectively defy the law, if it dares stand in the way of the beautiful community free lunch. Being a leftist in Kolkata is one's meal ticket.
Left ideology still has many takers in all geographies, as it pampers the rebellious spirit, which is inherent in most individuals. However, when leftists come to power, they cease to be romantics. On the contrary, they run the state like a dictator.
China has 167 million old people but not a pension system worth the name. Nor does it care. How much its 'miracle economy' depends on State repression shows in the rising labour unrests, particularly the recent strikes in Honda's factories in Guangdong and Hubei provinces, forcing the Japanese auto major into giving a 24% increase in wages. In other words, the Chinese system could keep the wage demand bottled up for as long as it could. And probably it would have kept it longer if the workers did not start writing blogs and using Facebook to draw the attention of workers around the world, with a technology that Marx would have snatched if he could.
So, communist-ruled countries don't have free lunch. But Bengal, being a Left-run state within a democratic republic, is a different paradigm. It feeds on violence till it comes to power. Once in the government of a state, it still has no responsibility as long as there is a 'Centre' to be cudgelled for every complaint. Long before being in power, in 1953, Bengal leftists made a bonfire of tramcars to protest a one-paisa rise in fare. Jyoti Basu, who led the state's Left Front government from 1977 till 2000, described the incident with relish in his autobiography. As expected, after coming to power, his party turned the British-built utility company into a resting ground for its comrades. Rajdeo Goala, a vote manipulator, was made its chairman. The company is so inefficient today that it has to pay as many as 44 workers per tram.
The Bengal leftists never bothered about governance deficit because they didn't face any serious electoral opposition in the past. Many factors have combined with the length of their incumbency to put them close to the road's end. And that has given a new edge to the opposition campaign. Why do only a quarter of the students enrolling in Class 1 finally reach up to Class 10, the rest dropping out of the system at different points? What will the education-deprived boys and girls do in life - will they all ply rickshaws and serve as maidservants? Why has Bengal's industrial labour productivity dropped so low that it's not even half of that of the country? Wasn't it once called the 'tool room of India'?
Why have strikes (not lock-outs) made the state lose a quarter of the total man-days lost in the country? Why don't the police lodge even an FIR until there is a nod from the local party bureaucrat? Why does the present chief minister shamelessly draw a distinction between 'them' (ora) and 'us' (amra), as if he is the CM of a party and not of the state?
The election manifesto of Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress, for which the deck appears to be stacked, has promised the moon, all in either the first 200 or 1,000 days. It is written like an IPO road-show literature, with its supposed author being a chamber-of-commerce executive. It does not talk at all about what it will do with the heavy carcass of 'leftism', which symbolises nothing but a profound disregard of authority.
At a school final examination centre in north Bengal recently, a group of candidates, enraged at being prevented from copying, beat up the invigilators and tore up everybody else's answer sheets. Will the new government look the other way, like its predecessor, or make sure the hooligans get exemplary punishment under the law? More importantly, can it make all-round development of West Bengal a common cause of everyone, including the opposition of the day? Or will it mire itself in the majoritarian gobbledygook of 'them' and 'us'?
Mamata has given the first sign that Bengal might exorcise leftism at last by saying that she is thinking of introducing a legislative council, 42 years after its abolition in the state. A bicameral legislature, bi-partisanism in all affairs of the state, all-parties consultation on major policy issues, the government treating the leader of the opposition as an esteemed colleague - these are marks of a democracy coming of age by accepting consensus, and not numbers, as its guiding principle. Lenin called his faction Bolshevik as it managed to get majority in the Russian Social Democratic Party in 1903, the word being derived from the Russian word bolshinstvo, meaning majority. It is a mistake from the past that cries for correction.
(Sumit Mitra is a Kolkata-based writer. The views expressed by the author are personal.)