Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s tenure of more than a decade as the chief minister of West Bengal is a tale best captured in two contrasting imageries: First, of a dhoti-clad head of state, perched on a cycle-van (a rustic vehicle), reaching out to people in a remote village of South 24 Parganas in 2000
And, second, of Bhattacharjee flanked by Tata Sons Chairman Ratan Tata at Writers’ Building, announcing the Nano project, right after the swearing-in ceremony of the seventh Left Front government.
For Bhattacharjee, the transition from a “people’s man” to corporate India’s preferred chief minister was rapid, albeit with a cataclysmic effect. Having passed the anti-incumbency test in 2001 — when his predecessor Jyoti Basu had stepped down on “health grounds” — Bhattacharjee started his tenure with the famous “do it now” slogan, aimed at improving work culture in the administration and the state, which was otherwise known for its bandhs.
The communist chief minister courted capitalists, the Deng Xiaoping way — perhaps not out of choice but sheer necessity.
Numbers underscored the need: The average state domestic product (SDP) growth from 2003-04 to 2005-06 had been 7.29 per cent, while the national average had breached nine per cent during the period. Agriculture growth was tapering from its peak levels.
This set the agenda for Bhattacharjee. Industrialisation was clearly the way forward and the chief minister was willing to implement it, whatever it cost. Even if it meant using veto powers against his allies to renew German wholesaler Metro Cash & Carry’s APMC (Agricultural Produce Market Committee) licence or banning the words “gherao” and “bandhs” from the lexicon of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (Citu), he did it all.
“Gherao is our contribution to the dictionary,” Bhattacharjee was often heard saying at packed meetings organised by the chambers of commerce, inviting his party’s wrath.
The Bengal IT policy was formulated in 2003 and during 2001-05, the sector, with 32,000 employees, witnessed a 70 per cent growth, albeit on a low base. Wipro was the new feather in Bhattacharjee’s cap and he was affirmed the best chief minister by Azim Premji.
A policy for restructuring/divesting public sector units (PSUs) was also put together, and the biggest success was the sale of Great Eastern Hotel, a feat achieved 17 years after being first proposed. Foreign aid was welcome and a pilot project of restructuring 17 PSUs was undertaken with UK aid from the Department for International Development (DFID).
The going was good, and Bhattacharjee leveraged the gains in 2006 Assembly elections, which the Left Front swept. The result was taken as mandate for industrialisation.
At his maiden press conference after being sworn in as the chief minister, Bhattacharjee asked reporters: “How do you like the beginning?” The beginning meant the Nano project.
But Bhattacharjee had not imagined it was also the beginning of the most challenging period.
“There is no doubt that Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee was serious about industrialisation, but his procedure was totally wrong. In market-based reforms, the party cannot have the last say,” points out Abhirup Sarkar, professor of economics at the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI).
Statistics had long indicated that it would be an uphill task for Bhattacharjee. Of 1,350 million acres of agricultural land, the government held only 23,000 acres. And, only five per cent of this was fallow.
Investment proposals were pouring in the second term and the need for land acquisition was escalating. Agitation against land acquisition was also rearing its head, with the same intensity.
On March 14, 2007, an unspecified number of people were killed in a police firing in Nandigram — the site for a chemical special economic zone. This was a colossal blunder that numbed the state government into inaction.
When protests in Singur, spearheaded by Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee, gained momentum, the government failed to react. The impact: The state government failed to retain the Nano project, and its vote share. In the Lok Sabha elections that followed, the Left Front was routed, while Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress, which was decimated in the previous Assembly elections, resurrected.
Industrialisation was put on the back burner, covertly though. The overt manifestation: The chief minister started giving chamber meetings a miss.
Lack of investments and over-dependence on agriculture took a toll on revenue collection and, in turn, the state’s finances. Debts ballooned to a staggering Rs 1.86 lakh crore.
Figures computed by Dipankar Dasgupta, professor of economics at the Economic Research Unit of Kolkata’s Indian Statistical Institute, paint a dismal picture of Bhattacharjee’s tenure.
From 1999-2000 to 2008-09, the trend rate of growth in per-capita agricultural output was one per cent in West Bengal, while it was a little more in the rest of India. In value terms (at 1999-2000 prices), though, it meant Rs 1,000 more for the state. The trend rate for per-capita industrial output was 3.6 per cent for Bengal, while it was 5.2 per cent for the rest of India. However, in terms of money, the growth for the rest of India was from Rs 4,000 to Rs 6,000, while for Bengal it was nearly flat, at around Rs 2,000.
The state’s list of investment proposals since Bhattacharjee took charge may be long, but success stories have been few. JSW Steel’s 10-million-tonne steel plant is one of the few mega greenfield projects in the country to bag land, mines, water and environmental clearance.
Bhattacharjee also put his best foot forward to provide land, within hours, to Infosys late last year. Wipro also got land for its second campus. That the chief minister made a comeback to chamber meetings after a two-year hiatus shortly before accommodating the software majors may well be a coincidence.
If government figures are to be believed, during 2005-09, West Bengal received 1,362 proposals, which promised investments of Rs 2,37,000 crore. But only 10 per cent of those were implemented, a fact reflected in the unemployment figures that have touched 6.4 million.
In the last two years, more than 8,000 acres have been acquired, in spite of Nandigram and Singur, but these are for projects announced before the land agitation movement. Others, like Bhushan Steel (one of the few companies to sign an agreement after Nandigram), are still waiting.
Yet Bhattacharjee appears to be putting up a brave fight, as he braces for one of his most challenging Assembly elections.
In a recent interview, the chief minister said: “Despite obstacles, we have marched forward. Time will tell whether it will be a long march to form government in West Bengal.”