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Strong and silent

india Updated: Feb 01, 2010 23:45 IST

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I would have liked to have met Jyoti babu. Among the Indian politicians of our times, he possessed a charisma that was quite uniquely his own. He was laconic in a world where verbosity is the norm. He had a reputation for being a good listener, whereas the average Indian politician feels unfulfilled, it seems, unless he has three conversations going at the same time.

He was famous for his silence. People who came to him expecting to be embraced or attacked, would go away wondering why he had not said a word. His speeches, at least the few times I heard him, lacked the rhetorical flourishes that many of his colleagues were famous for. He had a dry wit, but used it sparingly. He smiled little, and avoided patting people on the back. He was neither a film star nor a poet manqué. There was nothing in his past — no extreme poverty, no act of renunciation, no personal tragedy — that could invest his present with a sense of romance. Yet for over 30 years (and especially for the last 20), he remained, durably, one of the most admired and loved politicians in India.

One thing that clearly impressed people was his aura of authority. His obvious intelligence, his unwillingness to waste words, and avoidance of all histrionics, gave him a gravitas that is rare in Indian politics. His dignity, that he never complained in public about ‘the Party’ even when it clearly got in the way of things he wanted, the fact that he almost never went back on what he said (even when he clearly should have), gave the impression of a man who knew exactly what he wanted and where he was going. People thought twice about getting in his way. His orders were meant to be carried out.

What is striking, given the authority that he enjoyed, is how little got achieved in West Bengal during the 23 years of his tenure. The main policy achievements of that period — the establishment of panchayati raj in the villages, a package of agrarian reforms including Operation Barga, some land redistribution, some investment in small-scale irrigation and the promotion of high-yielding varieties of rice — were all launched right after the Left Front came to power in 1977.

Indeed, I have been told by a reliable Party source (and a great admirer of Jyoti babu’s) that the urgency that we see clearly, in the early years of the regime, came from a conviction that they would be thrown out of power soon, as they had been in 1967 and 1969. They wanted to leave their imprint on the system before that happened. They had not figured in the fact that the politics of India had changed fundamentally in 1977. Multi-party competition was in and dismissing elected state governments was (mostly) out.

This is, apparently also why, they rushed to empower government employee unions — teachers, health workers and hospital staff, and the rest. As with the other reforms, the idea was to create centres of left support that would outlast the government.

I have written elsewhere about the productivity effects of the agrarian reforms, which were substantial and positive. Indeed, one might claim that these reforms (and earlier land reforms) did much to move Bengal beyond the long, tragic shadow of the zamindari system — that particular hatchet, at least, seems to have been buried. The strengthening of local governance was necessary, though it stopped short of where it should have gone. The empowering of the government unions was a disaster — it may be reasonably argued that these are the true ‘class enemies’ to use an old-fashioned Marxist term — no one hurts the interests of the poor more, day in and day out, than teachers and health workers who do not do their jobs.

However, what is clear is that, all of that, good and bad, was mostly done by the mid-1980s. For the next 15 or so years of Jyoti babu’s rule, there is very little that can be counted as a significant new direction in policy terms. There is some toning down of the revolutionary rhetoric and gradual cosying up with the entrepreneurial class — though not enough to attract back the big players — but no clear new directions.

It would take a better historian than I to piece together what went wrong. Let me just throw out a couple of thoughts. One is lack of competition. By the mid-1980s it was increasingly clear that the Congress in West Bengal had no credible leadership to speak of — the Siddhartha Shankar Ray regime had packed the party with local thugs in order to combat the twin challenges from the Left and the old Congresswalas, and the party was now paying the price. The electoral pressure, at least in the short-run, was off.

The other is that the Left seems to have convinced itself that it needed the public sector unions to survive politically in the long-run. Given that as a Leftist party its natural agenda should have been to improve the delivery of public services, there was really very little for it to do, if taking on the unions were off-limit. All that remained was to coast.

Abhijit Banerjee is Ford Foundation International Professor of Economics and Director,
Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, MIT
The views expressed by the author are personal