Tag Archives: communism

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

Berlin Wall 20 years on

When I was a teenager in the 1980s there was a general feeling that we might one day have to prepare for a nuclear war. It sounds foolish now. At that time, our political concerns and fears were still linked to states, not amorphous terrorist groups. In western Europe, we were constantly concerned about the relationship with the Soviet bloc across the iron curtain.

Playground conversation would be about Reagan, Thatcher, and what will happen if and when a war does occur. That wasn’t because I was some kind of childhood political junkie, it was just the attitude of that era. The news talked about it. The media in general talked about it. Dramatists talked about it. Musicians talked about it. And us, the kids kicking a ball around in the playground, were talking about it.

Then exactly 20 years ago today – when I was a young student of computer science and sitting in college cutting my teeth on assembly code – the East Germans came crashing through the Berlin Wall.

Granting freedom of movement to East Germans started a process that has yet to finish. We found peace and improved political relationships quite early on, and one look at modern Berlin would lead you to ask if there ever was a division. But, the old Eastern part of Germany is still affected by the years of division. Industry there is less productive, career opportunities aren’t as bright. Even two decades down the line, there has not been a complete assimilation.

Europe has developed immensely since that time, to the point where most of the continent shares a currency and grants freedom of movement to all citizens. Now our union contains 27 nation states, many of whom were Soviet-bloc states just a couple of decades ago.

The destruction of the wall liberated so many people to live their lives in a spirit of greater freedom. Not just the Germans, but all those to the East of the wall who found the government dictating so many aspects of their life. It was an amazing single event that captured the imagination of people all over the world, especially those who have to rail against dictatorial regimes when all they want to do is get on with their life.