Communism finished in West Bengal

It was always an anachronism in India. West Bengal ruled by a communist party for the past thirty-four years and always trying to bend and flex the limits of communist ideology so they might embrace the real world. Now the communist rule is over.

I remember being in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) working on behalf of the West Bengal government a few years ago. They asked me to give a keynote speech at a conference and then do some consulting work focused on how to develop the local hi-tech services economy – IT and IT-enabled services.

I rose to speak to the conference knowing that the IT minister of West Bengal was going to speak immediately after me, but he had not briefed me on his speech and I had not been asked to brief him on mine.

My main thrust was that West Bengal should play to its strengths; the vibrant higher education community, the strong links between academia and industry, the sheer scale of educated young people…

I showed them that they have a unique proposition that is focused on highly trained resource. I explained that they should not try to ape other Indian states, such as Karnataka (where hi-tech Bangalore is located), and focus on offering low-cost labour into the growing call centre industry as it would not be a long-term opportunity for the region.

The minister stood up and the first image he presented described how much cheaper the labour is in West Bengal, compared to Karnataka, and how great this would be for call centres. The entire conference hall fell about laughing at him.

Embarrassing for me, and probably more so for him as it showed he was not really in tune with the business community and had not even taken the time to check what the speaker ahead of him was going to say.

But as I worked with the government there, one thing in particular intrigued me. The IT sector was declared a ‘special’ industry. The local government wanted to attract foreign investors so they decided that all the normal labour legislation would not apply to this one industry.

In West Bengal, strikes have always been common because workers often flex their muscles and refuse to work if they have a grievance with the management. In the IT sector, strikes were banned.

The minister smiled at me when he told me about this and declared that foreign investors have nothing to fear from the communist government, because of the ban on industrial action in the sectors they were trying to boost.

So I asked how the IT workers would get to work when the bus drivers were on strike, or how the computers would work when the power company workers were on strike, or how the workers could eat if the restaurant workers were on strike?

He couldn’t answer. He only gave some weasel words about IT staff sleeping in the office to avoid transport strikes, or companies bringing in food and using diesel generators to keep the lights on. None of it was a real solution and if I was a genuine foreign investor, I wouldn’t have been impressed because the government was trying to remain communist in spirit, yet also doing anything they could to attract foreign money to the region.

So the communists of West Bengal were never really communist in the sense of Plato’s Republic, they just liked the colour red. And Che Guevara T-shirts. West Bengal has joined the rest of us in the real world at last.

Jorasanko Mansion - Kolkata

2 responses to “Communism finished in West Bengal

  1. Thanks Mark for sharing your hands on experience in working with Left Government in West Bengal one of the rich and advanced states of India but now lagging on many counts after 34 years of rule.

    Few things that I need to mention a) ‘Communist’ party of India cannot be modeled on USSR, China, Cuba etc. as they have to operate within the democratic framework of India hence at best they should be tagged as ‘Left’. b) When Left came to power Bengal was at its nadir… decline of Bengal started much before that possible 1970 or so. c) All ‘ism’ support upliftment of a state socio-economically. It is the people who decide how to implement or not to implement. No ‘ism’ is perfect but means, philosophy or methods could be different to generate and distribute wealth across the society.

    Left have lost this time but one needs to remember that they still have 42% of votes which merely says that there are staunch followers who are in denial of Left’s lame duck administration. This also tells us they must have done some good things like a) distribution of land to the land less farmers b) establishing 3-tier democratically elected rural governance systems called ‘Panchayat’ system to empower people etc.

    However, they completely alienated Industry, could not deliver in education or health… the basic areas. In every aspect the state became laggard even though I remember McKinsey report in mid 90’s stated that West Bengal rural pockets were richer than many India states. They empowered people but did not point out the responsibilities that come with empowerment. The Govt. work force became completely monstrous, lazy, militant and uncontrollable.
    I will specifically bring in the ‘Industry’ in the discussion. Historically the Left portrayed, some kind of, Industrialization is against the Agriculture. Such strong MIT-LSE educated ministers did not try to correct that situation by saying / taking steps that once you peak on agriculture one needs to look into Industry with the changing demographic trends and urbanization. Political gimmicks ran havoc in the rhetoric of the politicians.

    Jute mills closed… as a natural death as the jute industry was ailing world over. But the new industries were ignored. They talked about Dunlop Tyre factory near Calcutta which became hotbed of political smear campaign. However, everyone ignored the characteristics of Tyre as a commodity product which required scale… a small plant of 1950’s could never be viable to compete against the technologically advanced larger and sophisticated competition coming from various parts of the world unless huge investment was pumped into to build scale! Haldia Petrochemical … was given to Son-in-Law of the Governor, fund manager of George Soros, to build and manage a Petrochem plant… another classic commodity product which must be built to world scale. I could never understand the logic of awarding the project to a fund manager to run Petrochem… ignoring Dhirubhai Ambani’s Reliance who built an empire out of the Petrochem.

    Myopia… at best…

    The new bunch of administrators must deliver. They must learn from the mistakes of Left and also of themselves at different points in time. Industry must be favored to foster accelerated growth of the state.

  2. Biplab Jana

    I personally have no faith on this left govt.

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