More on the Development Debate in Buddha's Bengal

– Arindam Sen

Let's party – said Ratan Tata and kindred spirits, meeting and congratulating their favoured chief ministerial candidate Buddhadev Bhattacharya (BB) on the very day the government of the reformed Left was voted back to power in West Bengal in May last.

Let's party – a beaming BB nodded.

And the bonhomie started right there and then with a big bouquet of investment proposals exchanged for matching promises of liberal concessions from the State government. It reached a new high in mutual ecstasy within a fortnight when upwards of 43000 acres of land were cleared for land sharks like Salim International, the Tatas, the Ambanis, and others. The quid pro quo was MoUs for expressways, flyovers, bridges, townships, health cities and special economic zones.

The party continues, but so does the debate on the pattern and direction of development, on its costs and benefits for different segments of society.

Critique by Concerned Citizens

A number of most pertinent questions are being asked even by those who voice full-throated support to the promised investment deluge. To take one example, while profusely praising BB for his “far-sighted effort”, noted columnist Sunanda K Datta-Ray expressed several doubts in his comment Can Salim fulfil Bengal's dreams? : “First, the Indian intermediary, Prasoon Mukherjee, apparently a Jakarta-based NRI, and his company Universal Success, do not evoke instant recognition. Second, Salim's unproven capability to execute such gigantic tasks. Third, the likelihood of resistance confirmed by significant absentees [the allusion is to CPI(M) leaders like Rezzak Mollah – A Sen] from the July 31 MoU signing ceremony. Fourth, scanty media coverage compounding a general sense of mystery about the deal…. incredibly, the Detailed Project Report for a Rs 200-billion outlay over 15 years on 40,000 acres of land is still not available. Negotiations have been going on for two years. There has been much coming and going between Calcutta and Jakarta . Yet, we are not sure of details. …

It sounds dizzying, dazzling and a little too glib. The chief minister says that only single crop land will be acquired and that cultivators and sharecroppers will not only receive cash compensation but will also be rehabilitated professionally. How many cultivators and sharecroppers? Will the proposed 20,000 shops/stalls suffice? Can peasants overnight become shopkeepers? Do they want to? What will they sell? Will there be a market for their wares?” (SK Datta-Ray website, 5 August 2006)

The deeper debate is to be found, naturally, in broad left circles. Soon after the seventh successive victory of the Left Front, the charismatic chief minister was interviewed by the pre-eminent Bengali daily Ananda Bazar Patrika . Published on 16 May, the interview was reproduced by Shramshakti (Power of Labour), a Bengali magazine brought out by the workers' wing of the CPI, in its June 2006 number. The magazine also published, immediately after the interview, a trenchant critique of the CPI(M)'s development policy by Ashok Mitra. What follows are excerpts from these two authentic statements, with apologies to AM for our failure to convey the rich flavour of his language, his sharp wits and pungent satires, in our free translation.

BB's Mantra: Harmonise Capital and Labour

The interview had BB at his exuberant best. "LF government is not the end of the road", he asserted. "We do dream of a new society in the long term. We believe that it is possible to reach there.”

Does the new society mean communism? ”, asked the interviewer.

“By communism we mean… You see, we have to improvise on the old model. The old model has become obsolete. Political structuring of the economy will no longer do. We used to think that in economic terms, socialism could be achieved only through the State sector. But that failed in the Soviet Union . So China has taken lessons from that. They have come up with so many varieties of ownership. Side by side with the State sector, there is the joint sector, the co-operative sector. There are even private and foreign sectors. Socialism is being experimented afresh. I have just gone through the document of the Vietnam Party, where it has said that the party members can engage themselves in trade…”

In reply to another question BB said, “You see, we have to keep in mind that we are engulfed by capitalism from all sides. Socialism cannot be practised by remaining secluded from the surroundings.

The biggest mistake of the Soviet Union lay here. Socialism cannot be built single-handedly by remaining secluded from the whole world, the economy of the whole world and the world trade. That is why the Soviet Union crumbled from within. We blame Gorbachev. But he can at worst be termed a bad sailor. We have to take lessons from this.”

The 'do-it-now' CM has in fact already taken his lesson. He has shunned “seclusion” and gone out of his way to roll out the 'red' carpet to foreign capital.

Asked about his government's " philosophy of development ", he said, "... We do want development. We also want industries. But we have a clear idea about the direction of development. We want that development should take place from the point of view of the toiling masses. But the toiling masses do not have capital. So we have to depend on the capitalists for capital.”

The commonsensical view expressed in the last sentence, as we shall shortly see, has been thoroughly repudiated by AM with logic and verve. But first let us finish with Bhattacharya.

Asked whether he was " against workers' movements ", he replied, “Absolutely not. I am not against workers' movements. But there was a time when capital fled from the State due to indiscriminate gheraos, strikes etc. I do not want a repetition of that. As I said, it is for the sake of development of the toiling masses that capital is required. Wherever necessary, there would be movements. But I want some kind of harmony between workers and capitalists.”

This prompted the interviewer to go to the root of the topic:

But your Marx has said that the contradiction between the workers and the capitalists, between labour and capital, is fundamental …”

Mr. Bhattacharya was equally forthright in his reply:

“Definitely. The contradiction between labour and capital is fundamental still today. But we have to keep in mind that a revolutionary situation does not exist today. And capitalism is also not going to crumble down immediately. In the sixties and the seventies we used to think that revolution was perhaps on our doors. But the reality was different. Particularly, this amazing advancement of technology has retarded the pace of decay of capitalism. The destruction of the capitalist system is indeed inevitable. But that is not possible immediately. As a result, it is very difficult to survive unless there is some harmony between capital and labour.”

A Conscientious Critique by AM

Mitra begins his article entitled ‘ Timirbinashi, na timirbilasi ' (Ending Darkness, or Loving it?) with a scathing attack on BB's departure from the fundamentals of Marxism in the name of “changed situation”. He then comes straight to the basic question:

"Clearly, what we see [in West Bengal -- A Sen] is an erosion in basic convictions. When addressing a crowd, everybody is so vocal about the worldwide capitalist conspiracy, but when it comes to actual practice we hear that globalization has to be accepted… Well, everybody knows that investment is required for development and money is required for investment, which we popularly call capital. But merely because we need capital, do we need the capitalists also? We have gradually lost the consciousness of viewing capital separately from the capitalists. But why?

Private capital is always busy looking for narrow class interests. The owners of that capital do not have the slightest empathy for the aspirations, desires and the dreams of the people of West Bengal . Running after them, I believe, is not only wastage of labour; it also goes against our basic principles. On the other hand, the political perspective has radically changed. The central government, which refused to pay any attention to the Left Front government in West Bengal for twenty to twenty-five years and maintained an antagonistic relation with it, is now said to be critically dependent on the Left for its survival. The Left leaders themselves claim that now the central government dances to their tunes. It is well-known that financial institutions under the central government are sitting on mountains of money… But they fight shy of investments. The reason is very clear. They act under the dictates of the central government. The central finance ministry does not like investment under government auspices whether at the centre or in the States. Those who are in charge of this ministry, happily bequeath the responsibility of investment on to the capitalists. They will supply money to private capitalists, will merrily engage themselves in transactions in the speculative market, but will not increase investment in the public sector. …

Now, why can't we openly tell the central government, which dances to our tunes, that in the past a lot of injustice had been done to West Bengal because of its belief in left ideology, that the central government did not agree to restructure the centre-State relations, did not increase the quantum of investment in West Bengal, that it even went to the extent of directing the financial institutions to turn away from West Bengal? Why then should the central government not be compelled to reverse its track now? Why should we not assert that there is no dearth of expert technicians, scientists and enterprising men and women in West Bengal ? That people committed to left ideology are eager to set up new industrial enterprises -- they want to work under the supervision of the State government through the intermediary of various State government institutions? And that the central government and the financial institutions under its supervision should therefore contribute, without fail, at least ten thousand crore rupees for investment in West Bengal every year?

"We should keep the central government afloat only on condition that it must supply us with the requisite investible funds. The spate of industrialisation that will result from such enhanced investments will have the State itself as its driving force, thus obviating the need for appeasing Indian capitalists. Nor will anybody have bad dreams over the arrival or non-arrival of foreign capital. In the post-independence period, industrialisation in States like Maharashtra, Gujarat , Tamil Nadu, Karnataka etc. proceeded not with the help of foreign capital, but under the auspices of central financial institutions. At that time we had been deprived of this opportunity -- why should we not take the initiative to get it now?" – Ashok Mitra, A Letter that Remained to be Posted

It is possible for the Left now to categorically demand that the money that would be allocated to West Bengal each year shall be spent under some government head, either in some central schemes or in various State schemes or in the alternative, in some joint ventures between the State and the private, approved by the State and the central governments. Every project prepared by the government should be implemented in accordance with the guidelines framed by the State for the expansion of industrial infrastructure. In framing these guidelines, the issue of unemployment should be accorded the highest importance and to that end, balanced development of big, medium and small industries must be ensured….

Why can't we make such demands?... We feel proud that we have the power to topple the government at the centre; still why are we so hesitant about pressuring that government for additional investments in the State? Investible capital has been lying idle with the central financial institutions, but we are not interested in that. We are longing for private capital only.

… Why should the capitalists be appeased so much? When owners of capital invest, they do so not because they are pampered. They invest after making lots of calculations. There are various reasons behind their recent interest about West Bengal . As a result of the huge investment made in the electricity sector during the first phase of Left Front, the supply of electricity in West Bengal is, for the time being, much better than in the other States. So the capitalists are naturally getting attracted to this State. Besides, the environment and infrastructure in places like Hyderabad , Bangalore etc. have been deteriorating. Even, alas, workers' movements are also raising their heads, like the one which was witnessed at Gurgaon in Haryana. Moreover, skilled scientists and technologists are available at a cheaper rate in West Bengal ...

"It seems that those who hold positions of responsibility in the State suffer from yet another kind of anarchy of thought. The amount of investments must be increased at any cost, as if there is no need to judge the character of that investment. The entire emphasis is laid on the aggregate amount of proposed investment, no question being asked about what good, if at all, would come of it for the State or the country; or whether there will be an expansion in job opportunities, and if so where and to what extent." – AM

The capitalists, who would agree to come, would do so in their own interests. There is no need to run after them. Rather, the interest of the State would have been served better, if the time and energy that is being spent on them were devoted towards extension of investments in the State under government auspices from the central financial institutions.

If we take a closer look, we find that the capitalists who have promised to invest in West Bengal , and have also fulfilled those promises in some cases, are particularly interested in the acquisition of land. There is population growth everywhere in the world. Land is becoming dearer and dearer like gold. Capitalists are often placing their demands for land before State governments merely for speculative purposes. … In our State, cannot those who are in charge make a second calculation before distributing land, examine the established norms in different countries for determining the amount of land required for investment in industries and determine which type of land is required for which industries?...”

Criticism by Mass Action

In our analysis of the growing contradictions within the LF's social base ( When Success Becomes a Burden , Liberation, July 2006), we took note of a very powerful people's intervention in the ongoing debate on development: the peasant protest at Singur. The agitation has grown all the more powerful since. Cutting across party lines, peasants have united under the banner of a "Defend Agrarian Land Committee" and straightaway refused to part with their very fertile land (60% of land in this block of Hoogly district is triple-cropped, another 25% double-cropped) for the sake of Tata's car factory. Massive rallies and demonstrations against the official conspiracy of land acquisition continue to be held every now and then. On many occasions villagers have chased out CPI(M) leaders and teams of government employees who came to "discuss" the compensation package or to distribute notices of land acquisition. On the other hand, the numerous organisations (including ours, see picture of a solidarity rally held on 17 August) and individuals visiting the threatened areas with messages of solidarity always receive the warmest welcome. The State government' s numerous manoeuvrings -- promises of jobs and other compensations to all affected people, including even sharecroppers and agrarian labourers, upward revision of 'offer prices' of land (the latest being rupees six lakh per acre for cultivated land and rupees eight lakh ninety thousand per acre for residential plots), declaration of special bonus to ‘early birds' who come forward to sell their plots, revised plan of acquiring land part by part so as not to face the united resistance of peasants cultivating the targeted 1100-plus acres of land and so on -- have so far failed to make a dent in the peasants' resolve to protect their land. The CPI(M)'s fabled skill in manipulating public opinion and managing conflicts have not been of much help either. Singur has in fact become a prestige issue for the chief minister and the industries minister Nirupam Sen; for the thousands of peasants and others related to agriculture -- a question of life and death.

"Industrialists are coming, they are making half-promises of investing rupees two-four-ten-twenty-forty thousand crores, but they have a pre-condition. They won't take land in old industrial areas. Agricultural land of their choice must be acquired in rural areas and handed over to them in consolidated plots. It is easy to see why they prefer agricultural land: it is available at much cheaper rates, maybe at just one per cent of what it would cost in an urban/industrial area.”—AM

In the context of our present discussion, Singur is significant on many counts. One, the way the LFG stooped to woo the Tatas. Liberal concessions were granted in various rates and taxes -- for example, free supply of huge quantities of water for two years, to be followed by privatisation of parts of the canal system which feeds agriculture in this vegetable basket of Bengal . Almost all appointments will be contractual; that is, on terminable contracts and the local authorities or the State government will have no right even to put up suggestions on this score. And now that the popular masses have registered their opposition to the Tata project in the strongest possible terms, the Buddha-Nirupam duo have made it amply clear on which side of the battle line they stand. They did not have the guts even to request the Tatas to choose some other plots that would be less harmful to agriculture and agriculturists. Rather they seem to be preparing for one of the worst showdowns against the people in the history of LF rule.

Apart from the nature of land, the sheer size is also suspect. It is understood that around 200 acres should suffice for a car factory; even if one raises it to 300 acres, what will be done with the remaining 700 and odd acres? Presumably, amusement parks, residential complexes, health and tourist resorts will gradually come up, taking advantage of proximity and good connectivity (by rail and road) with Kolkata, or some other commercial use will be sought out.

“But acquisition of land won't be easy.... History of different countries tells us that the peasantry abandon their land and move out to other places in two situations. One: thanks to an industrial revolution, there is an abundant supply of jobs at high wages in the urban areas and on hearing this, the peasants forsake their attachment to land and flock to the towns and cities. The second circumstance: there is a famine in villages and the poor peasants, facing starvation deaths, flee to the cities or to other countries. But neither of these two situations obtains in West Bengal ...."—AM

This more lucrative part of the plan is kept away from the public by mutual understanding between the Tatas and the government in view of a recent experience. Last year the State government had struck a deal with Salim International for such high-end commercial use of 5100 acres of agricultural land in South 24 Parganas district, but had to beat a tactical retreat in the face of widespread opposition and ensuing elections. When, however, a proposal for a motorcycle factory at Salap in Howrah district was mooted, the opposition was relatively muted and the work is already afoot. Industrialists and State authorities have thus learnt to put the best foot forward and move in measured steps. But the popular masses also are learning from experience, and if Singur is any indication, they are no more in a mood to buy the logic of eviction as the price of development.

Economic Programme of Indian Social Democracy

More and more concessions to big business do not exhaust the ruling CPI(M)'s repertoire for development. Closely interlinked are three other components of a complete package: (a) diversification and commercialisation of agriculture; (b) huge borrowings from imperialist agencies like DFID, WB; (c) large-scale privatisation, with as many as 29 PSUs involving about 80,000 employees currently in the process of restructuring, including closure. The four components were not introduced at one go as a single policy package. They were adopted piecemeal since the mid-1990s in sync with the national programme of structural reform of the Indian economy and got a big boost after BB assumed office.

Viewed as a whole, the package clearly constitutes a customised version of the restructuring process being implemented by the Congress-led central government under the auspices of the WTO-WB-IMF triumvirate. The difference between the customised and the standard or original Congress-BJP versions is comparable to that between the programmes and work styles of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. What a hardcore bourgeois party seeks to achieve with knee-jerk action or "shock therapy", a "Labour Party" or a social democratic party strives to implement in slow but steady steps. In carefully calibrated but uninterrupted measures, in ‘tolerable' doses. And always on the basis of manufacture of consent and manipulation of public opinion with the help of their strong party organisation and propaganda machinery.

Look at the CPI(M) in Bengal . Liberalisation and globalisation gurus nowadays insist on adequate safety nets or social security arrangements during implementation of structural reform; on this score the LF government has already secured a good performance certificate, thanks to the panchayats and friendly NGOs, from the World Bank and the DFID. With this maturity has been added another expertise: they know best how to deal with the adverse popular reactions to pro-rich, pro-imperialist reform. In part, they allow it to be safely vented through rallies and other programmes against the centre and/or imperialism; in part they just try and get people to adjust with the ‘inescapable reality of globalisation'. In addition to a degree of social security in the material sense (of course, there is steady erosion here and a lot of popular disgruntlement too) the CPI(M) thus builds up an ideological-political protective shell for liberal reform to go on. Here lies their special service to the ruling class. (The Congress also tries to provide a "human face" to its reform project and at times the party pretends to fight for the aam admi against the government on issues like hikes in administered prices; but such cheap dramatics seem to convince no one) It is for these reasons that the lords of capital in India and abroad, as well as their intellectual and political representatives, are so gleefully showcasing BB as a role model. From the harbinger of neo-liberal economics in India Dr Manmohan Singh to the US Ambassador in our country and the president of World Bank, everybody who is anybody is all praise about the CEO of West Bengal. As they have correctly realised, while a Chandrababu Naidu or a Digvijay Singh rises and falls like a meteor, the JB-BB continuum is poised to provide a much more sustainable and therefore ultimately more effective model of neo-liberal development.

All this, to be sure, would not have been possible but for total support from the party centre. And there is hardly anything surprising about this. Why on earth should the official Marxists – who are committed to keep the Manmohan government kicking for the full term, who have deputed their best MP to manage the affairs of the Lok Sabha from the Speaker's chair on behalf of the ruling coalition, who often helps the government out of most critical situations like passage of the Patents Bill, introduction of the VAT, the office of profit imbroglio and the passage of the finance bill every year – oppose the liberal policies of the WB government ? Rather they are glad to use the 'pragmatic approach' and 'creditable performance' of the government to earn greater trust of the ruling classes , to carve out a wider niche for themselves in national politics, in the politics of government formation via the coalition route.

Does this mean there is absolutely no difference between the Congress and the CPI(M) in respect to immediate economic programme? Of course there is. Both parties are for liberalisation-privatisation-globalisation (LPG), but they often differ on questions like pace and modalities of implementing the programme, methods of manufacturing popular consent, striking a balance between short and long-term goals and so on. However, on tactical issues like these we never find any dearth of debates also between, say, P Chidambaram and Sonia Gandhi, Buddhadev Bhattacharya and Rezzak Mollah, Nirupam Sen and Chittabrata Mazumdar, the CPI-CPI(M) on one hand and the RSP-FB on the other, and so on – debates which go on within the parameters of a strong strategic consensus on basics of the political economy of reform and rule . In the context of the present discussion, probably the foremost difference is that a social democratic party has also to earn the support of the victims of LPG , the broad working masses, and therefore have to oppose some of these policies at the national level and in States where they are not in power. And this is where, again, the CPI-CPI(M) differ from social democratic parties ruling at the national level in certain other countries, which have hardly any oppositional role. In the Indian case, the objective reality of the governing and the opposition roles, with the latter rapidly getting subsumed under the former, define the very mode of existence of our social democrats and lie at the root of their doublespeak, double standards and the utter bankruptcy of their parliamentary opportunism.

But then this is precisely what the ruling classes find most valuable in this hour of introduction of second and third generation reforms. And their blue-eyed boy in Bengal , with the red flag still flying half-mast in the backdrop, perfectly epitomises this shameful surrender of social democracy at the altar of 'development'. So the ‘party' will continue -- till the betrayed masses storm the stage and spoil the show.