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  Opinion   Oped  20 Jan 2018  ‘Biz-friendly’ Bengal: Is Didi coming of age?

‘Biz-friendly’ Bengal: Is Didi coming of age?

The writer is a senior journalist in Kolkata.
Published : Jan 20, 2018, 12:09 am IST
Updated : Jan 20, 2018, 12:09 am IST

Stripped of the hype, the Bengal Global Business Summit was not a failure.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee  (Photo: PTI)
 West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee (Photo: PTI)

West Bengal has been a tantalising destination for big-ticket investors ever since the posse of foreign investors launched the first age of globalisation in the 16th century, establishing trading posts in the Bay of Bengal, starting with the Portuguese in Chittagong. Before that, it was a flourishing trading and manufacturing centre, producing textiles that clothed the world.

In its current avatar, the challenge for every ruling party since economic reforms and liberalisation 2.0 was launched in the 1990s is to reinvent the state’s economy and surpass the legacy of its past glory and relegate its turbulent past of labour versus capital clashes to the dustbin or ash heap of history. Officialspeak has declared that the West Bengal government headed by Mamata Banerjee is all set to achieve this transformation, as the epitome of the ease of doing business, confirming the enthusiastic scoring by industry leaders like Mukesh Ambani’s “Best Bengal” and Niranjan Hiranandani’s “super ke upper”.

 

Remove the froth, and the fourth edition of the Bengal Global Business Summit netted promises of  Rs 2.19 lakh crores in investments after 110 memoranda of understandings (MoUs) were inked and a thousand-plus B2B and 40 B2G conversations.

As a number, Rs 2.19 lakh crores is a modest promise of investment; whereas Vibrant Gujarat 2017 signed up a total of 25,578 intentions to invest, of which 3,000 were MoUs that committed to pouring in Rs 30 lakh crores into Gujarat. With eight country partners, West Bengal was pleased as punch, whereas Gujarat bagged 12 partners, including the United States, and proclaimed that it was “connecting India to the world”. Limited in its ambitions, West Bengal declared it was a hub for business with India’s Northeast states and the Asean countries of Southeast Asia.

 

Commonsense says that all the promises made at Global Business Summits do not translate into projects under implementation. Sceptics in Kolkata have questioned what exactly was offered as intention to invest by India’s biggest like the Ambanis, Adanis or Mittals, who despite parachuting into Kolkata en route to Italy, offered to consider supporting a project from the family foundation’s kitty.

Stripped of the hype, the Bengal Global Business Summit was not a failure. It may, far more intriguingly, signal the success of Mamata Banerjee’s political stature at the national level. The line-up of tycoons, all on the Forbes 100 richest Indians’ list, which the state’s finance minister Amit Mitra repeated several times, is an indication that Mamata Banerjee is emerging as a heavyweight politician on the side of the yet-to-be-formed alternative to the Narendra Modi-led BJP government in New Delhi.

 

Whether there’s any need to hedge against the as yet unlikely possibility of a change at the Centre is not the point; the need to visibly have a toe inside the other door is how the glowing endorsements could well be read, and Mamata Banerjee fits the bill admirably.

Her politically slanted assertions that West Bengal loves tolerance and makes no distinctions, along with her iteration that the state government loves industry and “industry is an asset” indicates that business and politics are prepared to combine to create a new story.

And possibly also help Mamata Banerjee in ways that she needs most.

The simple act of being on stage with Mamata Banerjee is perhaps an investment by India’s business leaders in the possibility of the 2019 general election producing unexpected results.

 

In being there, business has helped her signal to the masses of West Bengal that the future is going to rapidly get better for the jobless who are being forced to migrate out of the state. The promise of 20 lakh new jobs, to be created as an outcome of the summit, is exactly what the hard-pressed West Bengal government needs to stop its credibility from eroding dangerously.

In the aftermath of the brutal killing of a youth from Malda, Afzarul, in Rajasthan — that went viral on the social media — and the second killing of another youth from Malda a day after the summit’s end, Mamata Banerjee may be under growing pressure to make good on her promise to stop the flow of migrant labour out of West Bengal and create new employment opportunities for them in the state. And even if she can’t make good in real terms, she does need to sell the hope of a turnaround to keep her popularity from sliding among younger voters and their families, who make up the overwhelming majority of decision-makers in the coming panchayat elections and the 2019 mega-battle.

 

Politically, demolishing the perception that the BJP is working feverishly to create, that it is the only alternative to the Trinamul Congress in West Bengal and so a likely winner in 2019, and going forward in 2021, is Mamata Banerjee’s biggest headache on home turf. While the BJP is not nearly as strong as it would like to project and its chances as an immediate alternative are almost laughable, the need to counter the campaign is imperative for the Trinamul Congress.

The endorsement of the Trinamul Congress as the ruling party of West Bengal is perfectly timed to quash the growing discontent among voters living in constant fear of the party’s propensity to settle slights and scores with unparalleled violence. Investors cannot be unaware that location-specific political entanglements can obstruct business and even government projects, seemingly forever, as the examples of the holdup on completing the East-West Metro Corridor or the Bhangor power grid project reveal. Therefore, the praise may be because the ease of doing business in West Bengal is limited to the ease of interaction with officialdom and the reality that Mamata Banerjee is the single clearance window for access to markets in the state.

 

The summit is a signal that can be read in many ways — it hints that the Trinamul Congress has sharply turned away from promoting the MSME route for West Bengal’s economic turnaround, famously illustrated by the chief minister’s choice of handicrafts and sandesh as industries; it implies the CM is on high alert on the growing groundswell of discontent and the need to find new ways of keeping hope alive to ensure voters remain loyal. And it implies that business and Mamata Banerjee have reasons for using each other as a complicated insurance instrument that works for mutual benefit.

Tags: mamata banerjee, trinamul congress, business, narendra modi, bengal global business summit