The former Economist editor Bill Emmott met the veteran Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Jyoti Basu, who was then chief minister of West Bengal, and his party colleague, Asim Dasgupta, who is still the state's finance minister. Emmott describes their meeting in his book, Rivals: How The Power Struggle Between China, India and Japan, published last year. He writes:
A very generous and hospitable local businesman had laid on a dinner for us at his home, and had kindly invited the two politicians. In Kolkata, poverty is highly visible right on the streets, and so the contrast of gliding past beggars and street dwellers to visit a comfortable home is always disconcerting, at least for an outsider.
The politicians underlined the contradictions even more. Ever since 1977, West Bengal politics has been dominated by none other than the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and Mr Basu was the chief minister for 23 years from then until his retirement in 2000.
Our host's table was excellent: the first course essentially consisted of caviar, accompanied by a fine Puligny-Montrachet. The communist politicians were not disconcerted at all. They seemed to enjoy the hospitality, especially the caviar.
Yes, it is a cheap point. Communist politicians everywhere have to sup with capitalists, and "champagne socialist" is a term familiar in London, too.
But the CPI(M) in general, and the government of West Bengal in particular, is a rich source of paradox.
The communists hindered national development while trying to develop their own state of West Bengal, says Emmott.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh could not go against their wishes because his Congress coalition government depended on their support. Finally the communists withdrew their support in protest against the nuclear agreement he signed with President George Bush, but by then he was approaching the end of his term.
Polling begins today to elect a new government.
The CPI (M) has used its influence to slow the reform process down (in India), blocking the sort of changes that in China have given the economy much of its vigour, notably privatization and changes to the labour laws…
Yet in its own stronghold of West Bengal, the CPI (M) has been in the forefront of reform and of encouraging industrialization…
Mr Basu's successor as chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, is considered a pioneer of industrial development. So much so that he has got into trouble for it, with two land deals in West Bengal causing protests by local villagers in 2007: a Special Economic Zone planned in Nandigram for a chemicals plant that was to be built by an Indonesian conglomerate, the Salim Group, and a new car factory at Singur, for Tata Motors, India's biggest car maker. At Nandigram efforts by the West Bengal police and by the members of the CPI(M) itself to clear the protesters away led to at least 14 deaths.
There, in brief, is the confused essence of India as a contemporary political economy.
It is no wonder that even a government led by a wise, gentle, pro-reform economist, Dr Manmohan Singh, and steered from the shadows by the head of India's most famous and powerful family, Sonia Gandhi, has been unable to achieve very much since it entered office in 2004.