Sunday, December 19, 2010

Lessons that Bihar can teach West Bengal

By Swapan Dasgupta

There is hardly any 'good news' in this season of despair and mounting cynicism. One of the few comes from a hitherto unlikely quarter: from Bihar and the large Bihari diaspora scattered over India.

Economic growth, it is well recognised, depends as much on actual generation of wealth as on sentiment, the shorthand for a positive perception of the environment. Ever since Nitish Kumar's conclusive re-election, the sentiment on Bihar has turned bullish. This is evident not so much in the capital markets of Mumbai where these things take longer to play out, but among those who have an emotional stake in Bihar's future. Accustomed for long to being the butt of derision and ridicule, Bihar has now been infected with a heady, we-can-do-it mood. In the short term, the tangible results of this optimism may be modest: a real estate boom, growth and establishment of small and medium enterprises and some willingness of those who had bought a one-way ticket out of Patna to return and do something worthwhile. Once the investments of the pioneers start yielding results, the big players will be inclined to give Bihar a try.

The promise and expectation of good governance is all that it takes to arouse the native entrepreneurial instinct. If the Nitish Kumar Government can combine security, education and decent roads with adequate power supply and a measure of streamlined decision-making, Bihar has the potential to make a worthwhile contribution to the larger India story.

The signs of re-awakening in Bihar should, ideally, have a multiplier effect in the rest of eastern India, but particularly in West Bengal. A few decades ago, Bengalis would have found the suggestion of learning from Bihar quite preposterous. Till the early-1960s, West Bengal ranked next to Maharashtra as the country's most industrialised province. Calcutta was the economic and cultural hub of a huge area that covered both the erstwhile, undivided Bengal Presidency and the North-east. It was a cosmopolitan city that embraced gracious living and intellectual vibrancy.

All that, tragically, is history. If there is a city that, despite its many flyovers and umpteen shopping malls, epitomises a sense of decline, it is Kolkata. There is still a pulsating busyness about the city but it is also coupled by a visible sense of desperation, an outcome of shrinking opportunities. Kolkata has mastered the art of survival but lost the ability to grow and prosper. An imperial success, Bengal failed to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the market economy.

At one time the Bengali middle class personified enlightenment and the push to modernity. Those impulses were fuelled by a thriving economy centred on both trade and modern manufacturing. Once economic stagnation and decline set in, a way of life and thinking also dried up. Today, the Bengali middle classes are struggling to keep afloat, desperately leveraging their modest real estate holdings for modest advantage. Those who could, abandoned sonar Bangla long ago to build careers elsewhere. Like their Bihari counterparts, they haven't done too badly. Those who couldn't move out have adjusted to a new life devoid of the embellishments of gracious living. With the shrinking of the economy, there has occurred a truncation of the mind. And, if the garish posters of Bengali films are anything to go by, there has also been a debasement of taste.

For three decades, Bengalis were intoxicated by the prospect of an undefined revolution that would bring salvation. Like Lalu Yadav's social awakening that conferred a sense of empowerment but thwarted the quest for livelihood, the CPI(M) destroyed many social hierarchies and injected into the less privileged a sense of heady insolence—the cholbe na culture. In Bihar, unguided social engineering produced a 'jungle raj' marked by lawlessness; in West Bengal, the Reds unleashed a cadre raj that sought to exercise total control over the locality and the workplace. Outwardly, Jyoti Basu and Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee conveyed a sense of refinement and even decency. But they were like the proverbial gold filling in a mouth of decay.

The same exasperation that decimated Lalu in Bihar is likely to lead to the Left Front defeat in next summer's Assembly poll. You can whiff the yearning for change in Bengal and see the wilting of the CPI(M)'s famed organisation. However, unlike the hopes pinned on Nitish, there are few expectations from Mamata Banerjee. In confronting the Left, she too has imbibed the same militant negativism that once defined her adversary. But unless she can transcend the politics born of cussedness and despair, Bengal is destined to remain the sick lady of the east. Bihar and Orissa are marching ahead because they don't have the hang-ups that stem from misplaced superiority.

Sunday Times of India, December 19, 2010

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