DIDI AT HEAVEN’S DOOR
By MJ Akbar
Byword in India Today
The door to heaven deserves a fresh coat of paint. There is only a smudge or two of contemporary colour in Siliguri, the last town on the Bengal plains before the horizon slides up to the ethereal beauty of the Himalayas. Siliguri is an urban scrawl, unable even to achieve the breadth of a sprawl. A couple of malls have come up along the national highway before it curves away towards the exquisite turbulence of the Teesta river, tumbling through picturesque settlements like Kalijhora and Kalimpong before it heads into Gangtok or Darjeeling.
Perhaps a hundred yards from Siliguri’s Spencers mall is a billboard from history, an advertisement for the cpi(m)’s daily newspaper Ganashakti (People’s Power). A once-strident typography has evaporated to the edge of invisibility. The faint masthead speaks of past glory. Askance of this billboard is a newly-minted office of a Bengali newspaper that has, over the last many years, fought the Left Front almost as ferociously as Mamata Banerjee. The building is on a wide, narrow strip, a house without proportional depth; its central feature a hall punctuated by open doors. The conjunction seems an appropriate metaphor for the seismic shift that has taken place in Bengal. The Left has faded away. But there is something empty and dysfunctional about the alternative space.
This is understandable, given that Mamata’s government has just begun to function. Her initial impetus has been on hard work. This too is explicable, since work was not the favourite occupation of a Leftist administration heavily influenced by trade unions. Mamata is surely aware of the ditty that Calcutta coined, with the resigned sense of humour that became its preferred weapon during the stagnant phase of Left rule, to describe the work culture of Writers’ Buildings, seat of Bengal’s government: “Aashi jaai, mainey paai, kaaj korley beshi chaai (I come, I go, I get my salary; if you want me to work, give me more).” The new chief minister will not find it easy to propel the sedentary babu, but she has set her ministers an unprecedented pace. The strain has sent one to hospital already, albeit briefly.
Mamata might be missing the point. It is of course always better to work hard rather than work soft, but efficiency is a secondary rather than primary priority. Surprisingly, given the national clamour on the subject, corruption is not a dramatic problem in Bengal. The give and take in Bengal has been of the petty cash variety, nothing that would disturb the summer siesta of an Anna Hazare or Baba Ramdev. The Bengali voter did not demolish the Left Front because it was lazy or corrupt. Its sin was far more venal: it had become barren.
What Mamata needs, immediately and in profusion, is mint-new ideas. She understands the intensity of the challenge required in such a massive resurrection, but she should also worry that her ministers could undermine her government by searching for solutions within a vacuum.
The most conclusive evidence for the view that the Left Front government knew it was heading towards an iceberg is the simple fact that the Marxists had a fabulous pre-crash party on the Titanic. They left the treasury bankrupt. Bengal has a per capita debt of Rs 21,697, the highest in the country, according to the new finance minister, Amit Mitra, who believes that he will have to borrow Rs 3,000 crore from the market just to honour unpaid bills. While Uncle Pranab Mukherjee in Delhi might be a wonderful mentor, he does not have the wherewithal for nepotism. Bengal needs the private sector. More important, private capital must deliver a high return in terms of employment for every rupee invested; which means, broadly, geometric expansion in the service industry.
Alas, the private sector is not equally in need of Bengal. The Left Front, clinging to attitudes that had exhausted its utility two decades ago, thought it could tax its way to survival. Mamata will need a different compass. She may need to look at the Himalayas for inspiration.
Her neighbour up north is Sikkim. Sikkim has no income tax. The state has a population of 600,000 and seven universities, only one of which is a state institution. A number of medical companies have started manufacturing units there. There is a building boom, messy and noxious, but there. Sikkim is a thin puff of steam compared to Bengal’s potential as an engine that can drive the revival of eastern India. Necessity forced Sikkim towards invention. Bengal obviously cannot replicate such flexibility, but if Mamata does not incentivise local entrepreneurs with irresistible sweeteners and bait national businesses that can change, visibly and quickly, ordinary lives in Bengal, she will fall prey to that most fatal of diseases in public life, frustration and its first cousin, cynicism.
The biggest box in Bengal is called Writers’ Buildings. Mamata must think out of it.