Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Paran Balakrishnan: Communist chief grasps 21st century

You could call him the Deng Xiaoping of India. West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya is taking a leaf from the Chinese leader's book and dragging India's Communist Party kicking and screaming into the 21st century - into a world of nasty capitalists and unpleasant words like globalisation and foreign direct investment.

The results of Bhattacharya's conversion on the road to Damascus are there for all to see in West Bengal's capital, Kolkata (Calcutta), the city famed for its grinding poverty.

Today, wonder of wonders, Kolkata's fortunes are on the upturn. Smart condominiums are sprouting in new suburbs that were farmland a few years ago. India's most dynamic and fast-moving software companies, which in earlier years would have stayed away from Kolkata because of its militant trade unions, have opened shop and are on a non-stop hiring spree.

And, as in other parts of urban India, giant shopping malls are springing up where the urban middle class can shop till they drop and follow that up with a burger and a movie.

Bhattacharya, a lifelong communist apparatchik, is the moving force behind the transformation nobody ever believed could happen.

To put it bluntly, he has taken West Bengal and its ruling leftist alliance by the scruff of the neck since he was catapulted into the state's top job four years ago. He shocked allies by unabashedly wooing capitalists in India and abroad. "Money has no colour or nationality. I want investment," he said a few months ago.

Just how far Bhattacharya has travelled became evident last year when he began aggressively wooing Indonesia's multi-billion-dollar Salim Group. Prodded by an Indian partner, Salim is promising gigantic investments in Kolkata and West Bengal.

It's looking at building a 2000ha technology park and a mini-township on Kolkata's outskirts. The group has also laid the foundations for a US$50 million ($75.8 million) motorcycle factory and is considering building modern highways in the state.

Kolkata's transformation is also attracting high-profile investors from down under. Last year, former Australian cricket captain Steve Waugh paid a highly-publicised visit to Writer's Building, the dilapidated British-era government headquarters from where Bhattacharya rules West Bengal. Waugh, a popular figure in cricket-crazy Kolkata, came to sell the concept of a sprawling "cricket city" in the city.

The cricket city - on the lines of a similar complex in Melbourne - would include everything from a cricket academy and stadium to a housing development. Waugh has the financial backing of Australia's Macquarie Bank.. The flood of foreign investors may seem like par for the course in an era when global capital is whizzing around the world. But Kolkata, it must be remembered, is a special place. At one level, it's the impoverished city that Mother Teresa called home. And, at a political level, it's the place where a communist-led alliance has ruled uninterruptedly since 1977.

Early on during the communist reign, business fled West Bengal - which under the British was one of the first places to industrialise. The communists put their muscle behind radical trade unionism and backed every strike and lockout. They even invented a new form of industrial action called the gherao, where workers crowded round top managers in their offices for hours - sometimes even days on end.

Go back even further to the early 70s when traffic policemen did their jobs in pairs - one directed traffic and the other guarded against militant leftists who occasionally knifed or shot policemen in the back.

So it was not surprising that most businesses abandoned Kolkata and took off to more hospitable parts of India. Young job hunters also took their resumes elsewhere.

Today that's history as the city rushes to catch up with the rest of India and the world. An unsmiling, bewhiskered Karl Marx still gazes down on the conference room of the Communist Party daily Ganashakti in Kolkata. But even here there's a clear-headed understanding that times have changed beyond recognition. "Globalisation does not come by road," says one senior journalist.

Bhattacharya puts it even more bluntly: "We cannot stick to old principles. China has changed. We also have to change and we are changing."

It goes without saying that there's a battle over this u-turn in the Communist Party. The party's trade union leaders are particularly unhappy at their diminishing clout. Every now and then they hold a bandh - another form of industrial action in which public transport is forced off the street and all commercial establishments are "encouraged" to shut down. Bhattacharya has fought to have call centres and 24x7 software companies exempted from bandhs - rank heresy in comrade circles.

The drive to build more factories and sprawling residential townships also faces opposition from another quarter - the farmers who have smallholdings around Kolkata.

Back in the 18th century when the industrial revolution got under way in Britain, it was an easy matter to turf out the peasantry and send them packing to the rapidly expanding towns and the factories where their labour was desperately needed by the newly emerging capitalist class.

In the 21st century, the peasantry tends to be more informed about their rights than in 18th-century Britain. They also have the vote and West Bengal state elections are due in May.

Nevertheless, nobody is expecting the Marxists to lose. They have an iron grip on the state and Bhattacharya is hugely popular. Even his rivals admit he's scrupulously honest and refuse to say a bad word against him. After becoming the Chief Minister, he declined to move into the huge official residence and still lives in a two-bedroom government flat.

Still, there's a long way to go and that's evident the moment you step on to a Kolkata street. These days, the middle class has grown hugely and so has its buying power. But the poor are still out there. By day, they earn a pittance at menial jobs and bathe under pumps in the street as the world goes by. By night, they are dark bundles sleeping on the grimy pavements.

* Each week, the Business Herald's columnists track the latest developments in the world's two emerging economic superpowers. Today, Paran Balakrishnan, associate editor of the Telegraph, Kolkata, reports from India.

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