Monday 28th Jul 2014
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Gujarat and West Bengal Stand Poles Apart

Reminiscences

, by SOROOR AHMED

Comparing Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi with his West Bengal counterpart Buddhadeb Bhattacharya has become a favourite pastime of many media commentators. While the former earned notoriety by re-phrasing Newton’s third law of motion that ‘every action has an equal and opposite reaction,’ the CPI (M)’s poster-man justified his party cadres’ ‘paying back in the same coin’ formula in Nandigram.
West Bengal and Gujarat are not only geographically at the two ends of the country but ideologically poles apart as well. Bengal became a political centre of power as early as the 18th century while Gujarat and Mumbai started emerging as economic powerhouses by the late 19th century. Though old Bengal province, which included today’s Bihar, Jharkhand and Orissa, had all the mineral resources of the country, it was Gujarat and Greater Mumbai which grew faster, obviously because it was on the western end of the country and geographically suitable for the international sea-trade.
When in 1911 Delhi became the capital of India, as a political centre of power it started regaining the old glory. Though Kolkata remained the largest city of the country, its decline started a few decades later. Situated on the eastern coast of India, it was bound to suffer as India’s trade is more with West Asia and Europe rather than with Far East countries. Though Kolkata port was near the minerally rich region of the country, it was the port of Mumbai which left it behind. Surat, Kandla and other port cities of Gujarat were also the beneficiaries. The discovery of oil in the Middle East and subsequent rise in its price gave a boost to the revival of India’s western coast after mid-1970s. Many petrochemical factories emerged in South Gujarat and many Gujarati castes developed entrepreneur culture.
In contrast, Bengal, being the centre of power for long, produced more clerks, deputy collectors and officers than Gujarat. In the beginning Bengalis domination in the fields of education, science and academics was quite palpable. As geography, history and politics play a key role in shaping the personality of the people of the region, Bengal and Gujarat developed in two different directions.
True, West Bengal has some big factories and has thousands of small units but in the last two decades when the number of industries in the western India was rising, Kolkata and its surroundings saw many of them going sick – for example, jute industries. Being the headquarters of Eastern and South-Eastern Railways, the city has hundreds of ancillary units catering to the need of the railways. There are still thousands of cottage industries flourishing in Greater Kolkata.
However, big industries like Hindustan Motors was prominent among those which had to face closure. In the meantime cities like Bangalore and Hyderabad – though not being port – emerged as industrial hubs of the country. But these two cities are known more for the service sector, such as IT industry, than for manufacturing.
But Kolkata is still Kolkata, the cheapest among all the metropolitan cities. However, as in the case of Lalu’s Bihar, which got a very bad Press, the qualities of Kolkata and achievements of West Bengal seldom got highlighted in the media. In mid-1980s the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi termed Kolkata as ‘a dying city’ and there was no dearth of pen-pushers who accepted his view.
True, trade unions did make workers right consciousness and not duty consciousness, but it would be wrong to put all the blames on them for the industrial stagnation of West Bengal. But many in the media find in the trade union a lame excuse for the industrial decline of West Bengal. They failed to realise that the Socialist trade unionists like George Fernandes and Datta Samant did the same in Mumbai and Gujarat in 1970s. Though many textile mills got closed yet these two western states managed to recover because of the booming of the West Asian economy and rise in oil prices.
No doubt many industries went sick and there was industrial stagnation in West Bengal in 1980s and 1990s yet the growth rate of the state then was between six and seven per cent, that is, among the highest in the country. In those years the growth rate of India was not eight or nine per cent as today, but much less.
Yet very few people paid credit to the state’s achievements in the agriculture sector as it was not very visible to the urban-centric arm-chair journalists. Operation Barga was yielding its result and its rural economy was booming. Just as Bihar registered the highest growth rate of 4.89 in its history between 1992 and 2004 – even slightly higher than Punjab and Uttar Pradesh – Jyoti Basu’s West Bengal was doing very well. In both the states it was the rural economy which was booming. But the tragedy with both is that the semi-literate people in media, working on behalf of their capitalist masters, painted a horrible picture of backwardness. For them agricultural development is no development, even though the truth is that it is industrially developed states of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, etc. which have been witnessing maximum suicide by farmers and starvation death. While industrial stagnation of West Bengal or even Bihar got too much media coverage, hardly anyone highlights the news of suicide of farmers – about 1,50,000 in the last 10 years.
After the agriculture revolution West Bengal gradually started making its mark in the service sector too. Salt Lake and New Kolkata developed as new cyber cities of the state. In the 21st century Buddhadeb Bhattacharya succeeded Jyoti Basu as the chief minister. Since West Bengal, notwithstanding such a fine growth rate, was not often rated very high in comparison to west and south Indian states the new chief minister started stuffing Gujarat into West Bengal, the unnatural way of developing the state. Without taking into account the global, geographical, social, historical and political factors, he tried to bring about economic changes. This resulted in Nandigram and Singur. Manufacturing sector can never be thrust from above the way the West Bengal government wanted to do.
As power is the best leveller and the diction of powers that be is always the same, Buddhadeb and Modi are expected to speak the same language. No doubt Nandigram shows the ugly face of the Communists yet equating CPI (M) with the BJP will be a sort of overstatement. The good thing about the Communists is that Left scholars like Sumit Sarkar and Ashok Mitra are condemning the lumpenisation of the party and equating Buddhadeb with the Gujarat chief minister. In the BJP everyone supported Narendra Modi and one way or the other justified the massacre of Muslims. While there was nobody in Gujarat to come to the rescue of Muslims, in West Bengal the scenario is still not so bad. In Kolkata you can still stage a protest march against Taslima and Nandigram; in Ahmedabad one is still to see thousands of Muslims taking to street.


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