August 30, 2005

Eastward Ho

The Telegraph, 26.08.2005

Stuck with years of communist baggage that turned West Bengal into an industrial wasteland, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has been systematically trying to open the state’s economy to private investment since 2000. In speeches after speeches to investors, domestic and international, he has been saying, “Bengal is open to all investors” and “the mistakes of the past will not be repeated”. He sang the same tune during his recent stopovers at Bangkok and Singapore, en route to Jakarta, where he hopes to entice the Salim Group of Industries to invest millions of dollars in the state. But he must have surprised even himself with his comment that foreign entities could own 100 per cent of the state’s ports and airports, instead of the usual 50 per cent cap on such investments. Even with a caveat — this arrangement will only extend to new projects — it is radical enough.

But the biggest obstacle to Bhattacharjee’s ambitions is the political atmosphere at home. One, there is the CPI politburo, which is extremely suspicious of his economic policies. And second, the political storm that is brewing in West Bengal, with opposition parties and coalition partners vociferously opposing the government’s moves to uproot peasants in order to provide land, especially for the Rs 5.1 billion special economic zone of the Salim group. Perhaps the storm will pass, with at least one party bigwig, Anil Biswas, favouring Bhattacharjee. Interestingly, Biswas has even advocated a shift, en masse, of occupation from agriculture to manufacturing/service industries — an argument long forwarded by economists and ignored by the cadre. Evidently, Bengal is looking down the barrel — it must reform to survive.

While change is visible in West Bengal, most notably in Calcutta, Bhattacharjee must know that international capital is a coward. It looks for the most generous host and the safest house — and the two strikes on August 24 by taxi drivers and students unions do not do anything to reassure them that the red flag of Marxism will not engulf their greenbacks in Bengal.

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