Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A Party for Bengal

It clearly seems end of the road for Tata's in Singur, as Mamta Banerjee continues her intransigence and Bengal Government continues to fiddle. Ratan Tata was fairly clear when he warned that he would not mind shifting, if the safety of his employees is not guaranteed. He also has a deadline to catch and a commitment about cost to honour. With every passing day, he is getting better and better offers from other State governments, all of whom want an iconic investor like Tata come to their state with a path-breaking project like the Nano. All it will take now is a single incidence of violence for Tata to pull the plug.

In a democracy, protests like this are allowable, but have their own place. Democratic countries are still to be governed, and unreasonableness can not be tolerated. With all due regards to democratic rights, this was one situation where a firm administrative hand was needed. And, in this regard, the government of West Bengal failed its people. The Government failed to communicate, and clearly demonstrated that they have lost both the will, and the power, to govern.

However, it is not just the Chief Minister, who surely have to take the lion's share of the blame for not communicating well, but also the Governor of the State, Gopal Krishna Gandhi, who meddled in this affair and complicated matters. Mr. Gandhi is a fine man, mild mannered and all. But he seems to miss the point - he tried to appease Mamta Banerjee and give her undue importance in this whole affair. He should have noted the unreasonableness of her demands in the first place and stayed away. He should have realised that the opposition does not want the factory to happen simply because it will bolster the Government, so no amount of concession will let them stand down.

It is well known that the politicians want people to remain poor - if they are working, they won't vote. It is equally true, in this particular affair, for both parties in the dispute. The political thinking in the CPIM is unlikely to be different from Ms. Banerjee's, though the latter may have a more ruinous approach. CPIM continues to display that attitude at the national level and in every state they are in opposition. It can be stated, for certain, that for Singur, the Party and the Government pulled to different directions - while the government may have wanted the project, party men wanted the confusion to continue.

It is almost time to think, however, what happens to Bengal after the Tata project leaves. The consequences may actually be worse than one can think. It is not just one project, which is yet to happen, not happening. It is not even about scaring out the industrialists who could have come. If anyone thought that the status quo will be maintained even if the project does not happen, they are wrong. The failure of the project will surely destabilize Bengal, not just politically, which it surely will, but also economically, and in the middle of a global downturn, that is not good news.

This is why I see this. I have noted, to my dismay, that the Kolkata property prices are way out of range. One almost knows that they are speculative, and yet one notes the level of construction activities going on. In real estate market, perception is reality. Tata leaving will impact the sentiment in other businesses in Kolkata, but will decimate its real estate market, which is actually the most visible indicator of progress and wealth for the modern city dweller.

The other problem is that it will accelerate the brain-drain from West Bengal. In a world where talent is power, the communities should wake up to the impact of reckless political action on their brain-trust. Tata being such an iconic investor, their departure will tell the brightest in the state to look elsewhere. And, they will be offered no less lucrative terms than the Tata by the schools and the employers in other states.

One must also note that we are just about entering the post-post-independence phase, where the configuration of our society will be redrawn. This is a zero-sum time, when each competing entity will scramble for resources and investments. Losing this race will seriously dwarf Bengal, and the damage will be far more permanent than anyone likes to think.

In the face of this monstrous possibility, the note is one of despair. Clearly, this is time for a party for Bengal - one that has the state's interests in mind, above all. This one does not need to be separatist, as none of the other state parties are. But, in this crunch time for resources, people in Bengal can not afford to remain aloof to their self-interest, and be either a pawn to some distant global struggle against American imperialism, or be held hostage to a failed politician's megalomania.

India faces an election in 2009. This election is bound to be different - one that will be dominated by the agenda of individual states rather than any national issue. Inflation, Terrorism, Caste balance and Nuclear Power all are important issues, but none more than the daily bread, good governance, decent roads and secure jobs. This election will display a mad scramble for seats, and will produce coalitions of interest, mostly dominated by state's agenda.

In the middle of all this, people in West Bengal are left without a representation. Clearly, the CPIM, though they ride on their success in West Bengal, does not care about State's interests, because if they did, remaining aligned to the government in Delhi and winning resources for the state would have been more important to them than fighting against the 123 agreement and winning brownie points from their political masters in Beijing.

Also, the state needs visionary leadership - beyond aping the other state government's efforts to invite industrial investment. Post-Tata, this will be more in need - a clear vision regarding the post-industrial, entrepreneurial society. The state will need a clearer talent management policy, not just to retain its own best talent, but also to attract the best from other states and countries. The state will also need to realize its self-interest, both in the context of domestic politics - by securing projects and investments from the central government - and in the international context, by building shared prosperity with its neighbours and securing its borders. This needs to happen, and needs to happen fast.

The question, however, is if anyone is listening.

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