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November 18, 2013

In Bengal, British PM will get bang for his investment buck

In Bengal, British PM will get bang for his investment buck

British Prime Minister David Cameron`s third visit on a trot may mean nothing very much to a Delhi regime on its last legs, but his six hours in Kolkata have some implications for a Bengal administration still taking its first steps. You can sense the subdued excitement among faithful Kolkatans at the first visit by any British PM to a city created by and for the greatest modern empire in history. Six hours are barely sufficient to see Lord Curzon`s old home, or the fort from where Cameron`s ancestors established firepower that echoed in Kabul, but it is still six hours more than nothing. Cameron will see a Kolkata that has begun the long, if slow, trek from Marxist cemetery towards a new settlement, led by a woman who used power wisely if not always too well. Mamata Banerjee has established the infrastructure of a democratic counter-revolution. Now she needs investment.

Every visit to Kolkata confirms that Marx is dead. Communists killed him. Mamata Banerjee cremated the old beard. CPM leaders will not recognize this because they are terrified of the consequence: suttee. Bengali Marxism has turned into a cacophony of memories without a purpose, promise exhausted and replaced by grim farce. The comrades have become faded zemindars from 19th century Bengali fiction, dining off past glory while skeletons rattle through decrepit ancestral property, a bunch of old men in their seventies trying to reinvent the 1960s. They await a second call from destiny when destiny has told them it has other things to do. They once had an ideology. Now they do not have even an idea left.

For the last decade of Marxist rule, Bengal was bereft of government. Now it has no opposition. Communists are barren. Congress plays hide and seek from a few shadowy corners of the state, sustained by local personalities and static tradition. Mamata Banerjee, queen of the Hooghly, dominates an empty political playing ground.

This could have made her complacent. Instead, opportunity has energized her. Six months ago, the biggest sport in Kolkatas famous elitist clubs was baiting Mamata. The language was vituperative. If her faults had been merely political they might have been tolerated, but they included cultural contretemps, which makes the Bengali bhadralok cringe. Today, there is faint if grudging acknowledgment that she just might be able to lift Bengal from the toxic swamp that was sucking its life.

The only successful contemporary Communist party in the world survives because it is more Chinese than Communist. Beijing has created an official calendar for blood-letting: two terms and out. Leaders are packed off to the geriatric ward to play sunset bridge. A new generation gets its chance. In India the party is dying before its leaders. Mamata Banerjee has much to be pleased about.

Confidence is a vote-multiplier. Mamata Banerjee might be simply dressed but she is not simple-minded. She is a smart politician who recognized that political power in Bengal is vulnerable until you can seize the panchayats and municipalities, for that is where the muscle of cadres is oiled and massaged. She outwitted Marxists at their own game in local elections. It was a bit pathetic to hear CPM complain about rigging, since Marxists are pioneers and perfectionists of the art of using state machinery to consolidate the hold of the party.

Mamata Banerjee recognized long before any other existing or putative UPA ally that Congress would be punished in the next general elections for rising prices, corruption and malevolent, weak governance. She created the conditions for a major leap forward, and could win between 25 and 30 seats in the next Lok Sabha. She established distance from the Congress when it was considered unwise to do so. We now know that the risk was minimal. We shall soon see that rewards are going to be substantial.

Cameron has probably never met anyone who wears hawai chappals, or the flipflops he takes on a beach holiday, to office. But he is familiar with the appeal of symbolism: his wife looked rather pretty in the sari she wore during Diwali celebrations in England. Maybe Cameron will don a skull cap when Eid comes around next year. Bengal`s economy went into reverse gear when every dhoti worn in India began to be manufactured in a Scottish mill. Bengal`s magnificent handloom industry collapsed because it could not compete. If the past had its logic, so does the present. If the six hours in Kolkata are going to be more than a tourist pit-stop for the British PM, he must appreciate that Bengal needs more than a facelift along the river. It will be sensible investment. Mamata Banerjee already controls the regional policy of a central government she does not support. You never know how powerful she will be in the Delhi of 2014.

Written by MJ Akbar in The Times of India on 17 November 2013