In 1977, the Left Front government came to power in West Bengal, and the world heard its loud proclamation: India is a semi-feudal, semi-capitalist society, and a state government has scant power at its disposal to transform this system. What India requires is a mass uprising! The Left Front government claimed that, despite the odds it faced, it would attempt to implement an alternative financial policy, based on Marxist ideology and socialist principles. All of India, it was thought, would soon be impressed by their unprecedented success, and the whole country would quickly move to emulate these new policies. Indeed, West Bengal would be the pathfinder, eventually leading India to evolve into a real socialist country.
Today, those at the helm of the Left Front in West Bengal are not keeping to even the fringes of their old promises. The summary of the pretexts offered for this failure goes as follows: globalisation has changed the entire situation. The people of West Bengal are aware of the fact that, owing to constitutional requirements, the profits for state-owned industry operating under a situation of globalisation are either significantly lessened or removed entirely. Nowadays, there is fierce competition between states to garner private investment, and if we fail to compete, we will remain bogged down. Moreover, the state has to incur huge loans in order to set up industry. In this context, we have to turn to foreign and domestic private capital, and if the corporate bosses are not benevolent we will perish.
Even a cursory glance at the newspapers would tell us that the leftists of India are waging a war against the central government’s policy of selling out state-owned industries to the private sector. Why, then is West Bengal so anxious to place the state in a leading role vis-à-vis industrialisation?
In the past, it was said that the Centre was uncomfortable with the West Bengal government’s leftist ideology, and therefore was neither giving industrial licenses to the state nor increasing funds in the state’s budget. The financial agencies and banks, under the control of the central government, were also purported to be uninterested in investing in the state. Now, however, there is no restriction placed on setting up industries, as the licensing system has been done away with completely. Moreover, in the current context the Congress party at the Centre is fully dependent on the left parties to stay in government. As such, the question can be asked: What are the stumbling blocks in implementing the leftist ideology?
The Life Insurance Corporation of India, the Unit Trust of India, ICICI, the Industrial Corporation of India and other government-owned institutions are making good profits. They are at a loss as to how to manage so much money, and seem eager to invest a lion’s share of it in the market. But if the union government is so rich, why can the West Bengal government not get a piece of the pie? If West Bengal had received a substantial allocation from the central government’s coffers, it would have been much easier for the state to initiate industrialisation. There is certainly no dearth of skilled persons, technocrats, scientists or intellectual economists in the state. Why, then, has it not been possible to set up state-owned industries in West Bengal? A reply to this question is yet to come from the state’s mandarins. Moreover, it is particularly regretful that even those who are continually at loggerheads with the government regarding state policies on agriculture and industry are not asking this crucial question. Unchallenged, the government has no trouble remaining completely quiet on this issue.
To broach another matter, problems do not necessarily emerge from the contradiction between agriculture and industry. Rather, the primary question revolves around whether industry should be state-owned or owned by capitalists. Those who are at the helm in West Bengal seem to have completely jettisoned socialist dreams, and are now arguing for a capitalist society. A little introspection would make it apparent that, were land acquisition to have been undertaken to set up a public-sector unit, the farmers’ reaction would undoubtedly have been completely different. They would have realised that the government was setting up industries for economic growth that would ultimately benefit the public. Profits could be made, employment assured in the factories, and relative affluence achieved. Under this scenario, if the process of industrialisation were endangered for one reason or another, the government would have been able to tackle the snags along the way. The people would have realised that they did not have to be vulnerable in the hands of private capitalists: the profits accruing could have been used for the state’s welfare.
When the state government does not follow a constructive approach, but instead acquires acre after acre of land for the well-being of capitalists, the hearts of the common people are shattered. Thirty years ago a different dream was being dreamed, but that vision has by now vanished. Why has the movement for defining the Centre-state relationship on a more equal footing ebbed? Why does the government in Calcutta cower in the fight against the semi-feudal, semi-capitalist system? The bone of contention is not agriculture versus industry, but rather idealism and its oblivion. Translated from Bengali by Srutirupa Chattopadhyay.
— Ashok Mitra is former Finance Minister of West Bengal.