Monday, May 16, 2011

Bengal Votes For Change

The future of Bengal took a turn (for better or worse – the debate continues) when the votes were counted on May 13th, 2011. Trinamool Congress, Mamata Banerji’s thirteen year old party along with its one time parent party, the Congress, swept the Bengal assembly polls. The combine won 227 of the 294 seats and with it ended the 34 year rule of the Left Front – the longest by an elected communist government anywhere in the world.

There are two prevalent reactions that I have seen after the elections. Some are saying that Bengal has jumped from the frying pan to the fire. Others are saying that let us give these guys a chance. If they don’t perform, we can always vote them out. I am more inclined towards the second line of thought. My argument is that today Bengal is at the bottom of a “bear-market” (if I may borrow a term from the stock markets). It can’t really get much worse.

The fact is that for a lot of people in our generation have never seen a non-Left government in the state and may be thinking that a "known devil is better than an unknown one", specially when the option available is Mamata Benerjee. Mamata has never been very popular with the "thinking" people mainly because she has been a maverick and is famous for her inconsistent behaviour. There are a lot of people, including me, who do not like her brand of politics. But what is interesting for me, is that she has been able to attract people like Amit Mitra and Manish Gupta to her fold.

As it stands, nearly every parameter of development, whether it is education, healthcare, finances, industry, is in shambles. My main concern is with the state of the industry, where we are arguably doing the worst. In 2010, Bengal had investments of Rs 15 thousand crores. The Vibrant Gujarat summit for 2011 got investment proposals for 12 lakh crores. That is nearly 100 times what we did in 2010.

I was reading a paper published by Amartya Lahiri and Kei-Mu Yi in 2004. Read it if you find the time and are enthusiastic to delve deeper into this subject. The paper compares the economic evolution of the states of Maharashtra and Bengal between 1960 and 1995. In 1960, these were the two richest states in India. Bengal during the study period has gone from a relative per capita income of about 105 percent of Maharashtra to a relative income of around 69 percent.

In terms of per capita GDP, Bengal is again down in the dumps with USD 876 (see Sikkim, Mizoram and Meghalaya are doing better in terms of per capita GDP. The highest is Goa with USD 2802, followed by Delhi – USD 2400, Haryana – USD 1663 and Maharashtra – USD 1563.

So, my question is what can be worse than where we are currently? There is not much downside to a new government. There are so many challenges that this new government has that it would be interesting and instructive to observe how it goes about its tasks. I, for one, will be watching very closely.

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