Saturday, 14 May 2011

Left out

It is not yet twenty fours hours since the results of the assembly elections in four Indian states were declared. The day proved every bit the dreade Friday the 13th for the Left front. Having lost by a slender margin to the opposition in Kerala, their long standing bastion- West Bengal- was prised away by the Congress-Trinamool Congress combine. Thirty four years of communist hegemony in West Bengal was wiped out, very possibly forever.

Thirty four years. To give some idea of what it means, India's GDP in 1980- a good 3 years after the arrival of communism in West Bengal- was around US$ 175 billion, as against US$ 1.5 trillion in 2010 (Source: IMF), India's population in 1981 was about 683 million (Source: National Commission on Population). Back in 1977 the cold war was at its height, communism looked an inevitable reality, terrorism was a word virtually unknown in most parts of the world, China had only just opened its economy, apartheid looked unshakeable in South Africa, Elvis Priestly was still alive and...I'm sure you get the drift.

There is no doubt that thirty four years of communist administration has done little good for West Bengal. It is today one of the most impoverished and indebted regions in India (West Bengal's debts were roughly  US$ 37 billion- 1620 billion INR as of March 2010- which is more than the state's GDP). Most industries have long since fled the state due to the constant pressures created by labour unions. As of 2010, West Bengal had the highest number of unemployed persons in any single Indian state.

All of which gives some idea of the magnitude of the challenge that Mamata Banerjee faces. Take the example of neighbouring Bihar: after six years of outstanding work by Nitish Kumar, Bihar still remains backward and impoverished despite massive improvements at many touchpoints of day to day life (as this writer can attest from personal experience). Using Bihar as a guideline, one could safely assume that Mamata Banerjee and her party will require at least two terms just to make basic improvements in terms of employment, economic revival, food sufficiency and law and order- four pillars of good governance.

It is a gargantuan challenge that confronts the new CM of the state. The vast majority of the residents of West Bengal were born well after 1977, which means that the only administrative/ political culture they have ever known is the communist one. Can the new leadership weed out attitudes that have become completely ingrained in the psyche of the people over three and a half decades? Can the new regime manage to convince a people long used to striking for trivial matters to give up their unionistic tendencies? Can they weed out the culture of corruption and partonage that has held sway through the lifetime of the vast majority of the state's population?

And all these represent but a small part of the challenge that the new regime confronts- we are not even talking about the maoist menace in most districts of the state and the Gorkhaland movement that may well cause the eventual loss of the hilly regions.

In short, the people of West Bengal need to realise that the Trinamool Congress and Mamata Banerjee are not magicians. They have massive problems to overcome, which will require a strong will, concerted efforts and most importantly, time. Improvement is going to be slow because attitudes do not change overnight- no leader, howsoever charismatic, can change the mentality of the people in a short span of time.

The people of West Bengal have given Mamata their vote. They now need to give her their patience- the biggest challenge for both sides has only just started.

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