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Bengal - politics

I spent the year-end in Calcutta and noticed that very little had changed over the decades in that once grand metropolis. The crowds and commotion; familiar sounds of New Market and Chowrangee; the fairways at Tollygunge; the excitement of the races at the Royal Calcutta Turf Club and even the red flags with the sickle and hammer symbol fluttering peacefully outside offices and commercial establishments. Oddly, Calcutta seemed to me to be stuck in time but in a pleasant and reassuring sort of way. However, this may be about to change and abruptly.

As West Bengal heads for assembly elections in the coming months, the gossip in the watering holes of the city’s old clubs is that Left Front would almost certainly give way to the Trinamool Congress Party and its leader Mamata Banerjee (presently the Union Minister for Railways) would assume the corner office at Writer’s Building. This may not in theory be bad for Bengal and Calcutta, but businessmen worry that the familiarity and predictability of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) which they had grown to become comfortable with, would be replaced by a totally untested political establishment. They are also justifiably concerned that industrial unrests, ordered by Left Unions, which have over the years declined in intensity and frequency may be back with the vigour and gusto of the 1970s. Now that would be a horrifying thought.

Historically, Bengal has had relative industrial harmony with Communist governments in power. However, things could change somewhat if they were relegated to opposition benches. Decades ago, when in opposition they frequently ordered strikes and unrests were common place. A ‘chukka-jam’ direct by the Communist leadership would ensure that not a wheel would be in motion. All forms of transportation would be kept off the streets by eager cadres of the party establishment. Clearly offices and commercial establishments would remain closed. Through the seventies and eighties, Bengal gradually lost some of its industrial buoyancy as businesses either relocated or simply shut down under the strain of heckling unions. Only recently, under the moderate and mature leadership of the current Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, has a trickle of new investments begun to flow back, but investors remain cautions. Some Information Technology parks have sprung up along the drive from Dum Dum airport towards the city centre but Calcutta no longer occupies its former position of glory and has fallen rapidly in the pecking order, much below emergent cities like Bangalore, Hyderabad and Pune. The concern is that if the Communists were out of government, there may be little to restrain the unions and Bengal, observers fear, could return to turbulent days.

Ms Banerjee is a passionate politician. Her incredible rise in Bengal politics is based on true personal courage and on a sincere commitment to offer change. She has widespread support within rural communities and amongst middle-classes in urban localities. Ms Banerjee has built a party organisation capable of taking on cadres of the Left Front. But the Communists remain popular in the industrial belts and control the trade union movement across the state. This is where they may remain powerful albeit in a disruptive way and a future Trinamool Congress administration, which lacks the administrative experience of office, may find it tough to contain their aggressive swagger. IT businesses that were set up only recently and therefore not previously exposed to political unrest may face the repercussions of industrial turmoil for the first time. Businesses must brace up for the possibility of tough days, should the Trinamool Congress be voted to power and until they learn the ropes. The Communists are unlikely to let go, if only to provoke the government, and Bengal runs a risk of slipping into disarray, at least for a brief period.

The hustle of Chowrangee will continue in the years ahead and the lawns of Tollygunge provide solace to visitors in a bewildering city. But the red flags with the sickle and hammer may no longer flutter peacefully outside offices and commercial establishments. They may be out on the streets of Calcutta in meandering columns, formed by processions demonstrating the rights of trade unions to go on strike and disrupt public life.

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