India: Uneasy Convergence of Left and Right?

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Tue Aug 19 18:20:04 MDT 2003


http://www.epw.org.in/showArticles.php?root=2003&leaf=08&filename=6127&filetype=html

Economic and Political Weekly
9 August 2003

Uneasy Convergence of Left and Right?

The ruling Left in West Bengal tends to converge with
the ruling Right at the centre in pursuing –
half-heartedly though – the amoral agenda of economic
liberalisation.

Sumanta Banerjee

Lazy brains which drift along the current course of
economic liberalisation indeed become the devil’s
workshop. It is just enough to mention two recent
commemorative meetings. One was noted by strident
efforts by a BJP union minister to make out a case for
gung-ho profiteering by big industry in violation of
all rules and norms. The other was marked by the
deafening silence of a Communist chief minister while
listening to the prime minister chastising him for not
doing enough to allow such aggrandisement by
industrial houses in his state. Apart from registering
the aggressive rise of a loutish New Right and the
abject prostration of a sheepish Old Left in the new
world economic order, the two events show in which
direction the needle of the economic compass of the
nation is moving.

To take up the first event. At a meeting in Mumbai in
early July to mark the first death anniversary of
Dhirubhai Ambani, union minister Arun Shourie
expressed his regrets for having campaigned as an
investigative journalist in the 1980s against Ambani’s
Reliance Industries for exceeding its licence
restrictions. He now praised Ambani for having
violated those same legal restrictions which in his
opinion were actually obstructions. “By escaping those
obstructions”, Shourie said, “not only did Dhirubhai
build a world-class company… but also… he helped build
a case for reforms that were to follow.” In hindsight
therefore, the minister said, Ambani’s sins should be
seen as virtues (The Times of India, July 7, 2003).

A 180-degree turn! One should surely allow Shourie the
right to change his opinions. He now feels that some
of our old laws amount to obstructions to economic
growth. If industrialists like Ambani dared to violate
those laws and in the process built a ‘world class
company’, they should not only be let off the hook,
but their methods also should be incorporated into our
economic policies. The laws therefore need to be done
away with to remove the obstructions in the path of
the Ambanis. Is Shourie then preaching to us the old
maxim: nothing succeeds like success?

If Shourie is so much opposed to obstructions and
restrictions in our administrative system, and so
reverential about Ambani’s having violated them, would
he then from a similar standpoint oppose the numerous
other restrictions which are embedded in our economic
system that obstruct the progress of the poor? Would
he extend his sympathies to those among the
underprivileged who break these restrictive rules and
laws with the aim of establishing a just society – the
Naxalites for instance? Are they not by their actions
building up ‘a case for reforms that should follow’?
Would Shourie again agree to do away with laws that
obstruct the assertion of democratic rights – a law
like POTA which had been enacted by his own
government? Would he come to the defence of those who
are being hauled up for violating such laws? What is
sauce for the goose should be sauce for the gander
too.

But herein lies the rub. Shourie has chosen to be
selective in his new incarnation as a messiah of
liberalisation. His sympathies are reserved for the
Ambanis and their peer group, for whom he is prepared
to change the laws. He has forgotten their victims
whom he once defended in his earlier role as a member
of the human rights body PUCL or as a journalist
crusading against corruption indulged in by these same
industrial houses. Since Shourie enjoys a reputation
as an intellectual in some quarters in Delhi, may be
they should ask him: Has he now finally found his
ideological or philosophical fulfilment in the tasks
that he is carrying out as a minister? Or has he come
round to believing in the old maxim: If you can’t lick
’em, join ’em? But these are questions which only Arun
Shourie himself can answer.

The next event occurred in Kolkata, a few days later,
when on July 16 prime minister Vajpayee addressed the
inaugural function to commemorate the 150th
anniversary of the Bengal Chamber of Commerce and
Industry. A glum-faced Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, the
CPI(M) chief minister of West Bengal sat through
listening to Vajpayee admonishing him for the
‘dogmatism’ of his party which had led to the
departure of capital from West Bengal and its decline
in industrial development. Vajpayee further
sermonised, advising Bhattacharjee that “Bengal has a
lot of catching up to do”, and urging him to create a
strong pro-investment environment.

One must admit that whoever wrote Vajpayee’s speech
for the Kolkata function did an excellent political
hack-work. It hurt the West Bengal Left Front
government at the worst vulnerable part of its
underbelly – the industrial scene. Yet it took care to
flatter the Bengali ego by inserting in Vajpayee’s
speech such choicest expressions as “Bengal was the
undisputed leader and promoter of industrial culture
in India till the late 1960s”. And then, to allow
scope for the prime minister’s usual histrionics, the
speech-writer added the following to help Vajpayee to
utter them in an anguished tone: “Why did new business
leave Bengal? Why did new investments skip Bengal?”
The solution is provided by his ghost writer in so
many words: West Bengal has to ‘catch up’ by accepting
wholeheartedly the terms of the global economic order
dictated to by the IMF and the World Bank.

The West Bengal chief minister remained a dumb
listener to Vajpayee’s sermonising. It was only after
Vajpayee left Kolkata that Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee
dared to open his lips. In his repudiation of
Vajpayee’s charges, he reeled off statistics to prove
how his state had made progress in the agricultural
sector, how the state’s growth rate was 7.l per cent
as against the national growth rate of only 4.3 per
cent achieved by the BJP government, etc, etc. But
when asked why he chose to be silent in Vajpayee’s
presence, he came out with the timid confession: “I
couldn’t have said what I am saying now when the prime
minister was in town”. (The Indian Express, July 19,
2003). Bhattacharjee’s coyness in front of Vajpayee
and blowing hot immediately after his departure betray
the West Bengal CPI(M)’s schizophrenic frame of mind,
brought about by sheer opportunist concerns. It has to
keep the centre in good humour, and yet flaunt its
Leftist credentials to the West Bengal people.

As a result, under the CPI(M)’s governance the West
Bengal socio-economic structure has turned into a
halfway house. On the one hand, its earlier objective
of reducing the rich-poor gap in the rural sector
through measures like Operation Barga, guarantee of
minimum wages, centralisation through the panchayat
system still continues to pay dividends in the shape
of votes, as well as by contributing a major share in
the state’s overall rate of growth. (But as many
observers are warning, the rural sector in West Bengal
is fast reaching a plateau of stagnation.) On the
other hand, a new set of objectives framed in the
mould of the latest neoliberal economic policies is
threatening to widen the rich-poor gap in the
industrial sector and civil society. While the
CPI(M)-led government woos foreign multinationals to
invest in new industries in the state, it abdicates
its interventionist role in the numerous cases of
closure of existing factories by local industrialists
who are seeking greener pastures elsewhere, but which
are driving the retrenched workers to suicide. The
Left Front government had not even lifted its little
finger to encourage these workers when they tried to
form cooperatives to take over these factories and run
them on their own. In sectors like health, education
and social welfare in urban civil society, the public
infrastructure is being allowed to disintegrate in
favour of privatisation of these services in the shape
of expensive nursing homes and tutorial institutions
that can be afforded only by the rich. The Left in
West Bengal thus survives by juggling with egalitarian
measures in the countryside that satisfy the rural
majority and neoliberal measures in the urban
industrial sector to keep the investors in good humour
at the cost of the minority – the traditional working
class who can be dispensed with in the new industrial
environment ruled by the consumerist demands of a
parvenu Bengali upper class, and operated by a
capital-intensive technology.

Vajpayee’s speech-writer therefore was not far removed
from the reality in West Bengal when advising the
prime minister to conclude his speech at the Kolkata
function by patting chief minister Bhattacharjee on
his back by saying: “…winds of change are blowing in
Bengal, although quite mildly so far”. His recipe for
accelerating the speed of the wind of liberalisation
was: “a new pro-growth mindset”. The contours of the
pro-growth mindset had already been delineated a few
days ago by his minister of disinvestment Arun Shourie
in Mumbai when addressing the meeting to mark the
first anniversary of Dhirubhai Ambani’s death. He made
it clear that ‘building a world-class company’ was the
main yardstick by which India’s growth rate should be
judged. The methods by which one builds such a
company, according to Shourie, should be beyond any
judicial or parliamentary scrutiny.

The concept of growth that is being formulated by
Vajpayee’s colleagues in economic policies, the
Jaswant Singhs and Arun Shouries, is based on the
principle of equating growth with the rate of profits
accumulated by industries in the private sector.
Issues like social justice or equitable distribution
of income have been dumped and totally exiled from
their agenda of growth. The UNDP’s Human Development
Report of 2003 exposes the sham of Vajpayee’s
‘pro-growth mindset’ by revealing the enormous
disparities across India’s states with gaps in
literacy, health care and social welfare measures.
Despite such exposures, tragically enough, the ruling
Left in West Bengal tends to converge with the ruling
Right at the centre in pursuing – half-heartedly
though – the amoral agenda of liberalisation.


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