The Economist likes Buddha

Buddadeb_bhattacharya1
West Bengal’s Marxist Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee (picture from cpim.org) has received a glowing encomium from the Economist magazine. Check the Business section of the latest issue. He may not like the headline, "The capitalist communist",  but he will certainly love the subhead, "How a poetic Marxist has transformed business prospects in West Bengal". And it’s absolutely right.  I enjoyed the article so much I must quote it:

Until a few years ago foreign capitalists were unlikely to look for
investment opportunities in the Indian state of West Bengal, seat of
the world’s longest-serving democratically elected communist
government. They were about as likely to ask for the novels of Gabriel
Garcia Marquez in Bengali, the local language. That both are now
readily available is largely down to one man. He is Buddhadeb
Bhattacharjee, the state’s chief minister, a poet and playwright, the
translator of the great Colombian-born novelist—and a life-long
communist.

Since taking charge of West Bengal in 2000, Mr Bhattacharjee has
embraced business with apostate zeal. The results have been little
short of revolutionary. Under a coalition of leftists led by his own
Communist Party of India (Marxist), which has won seven consecutive
elections, West Bengal was previously best known for industrial action,
capital flight and the immiseration of its capital, Calcutta, recently
renamed Kolkata. Things improved slightly in the mid-1990s, after
investors were officially invited to the state. But only in recent
years, after Mr Bhattacharjee began travelling the world and wooing
foreign companies, have many actually come. They have joined an influx
of Indian firms in computer services, manufacturing and steelmaking.
Tata Motors says that next year it will start producing a new low-cost
car—expected to sell for less than $3,000—at a factory it is building
at Singur, near Kolkata.

Mr
Bhattacharjee, who has a reputation for probity unusual in an Indian
politician, has been credited with this success. In person, he is
modest and engaging. With shining eyes and a breathy chain-smoker’s
voice, he enthuses on topics from agri-business to consumerism and
Indian poetry, which he often quotes. In private life his tastes are
Gandhian in their austerity: he has lived with his librarian wife and
environmentalist daughter in the same two-bedroom flat for two decades.
Azim Premji, the chairman of Wipro, a big computer-services company,
has called Mr Bhattacharjee India’s best chief minister. The prime
minister, Manmohan Singh, agrees.

Some Indian commentators have likened Mr Bhattacharjee to China’s great
moderniser, Deng Xiaoping. He laughs off this suggestion, and notes
that communist ideology is practically extinct in China. Yet his own
“Marxist principles”, which he says he has discussed at length with
Hugo Chávez, the president of Venezuela, do not sound terribly radical.
They are, he says, to “protect the poorest of the poor, protect
un-organised workers, protect womenfolk who have no income.”

The Economist does not give him a perfect score, however.

Peasants are being uprooted by his land acquisition policy to help develop industries and the fallout has been "disastrous", it says, referring to the violence in Nandigram: People have been killed in clashes between the ruling Marxists and their opponents protesting against the land being given to the Salim Group of Indonesia to set up petrochemical plants.

The Economist adds:

The dispossessed are not alone in their protests. India’s urban classes
retain a sentimental fondness for village life, poor and squalid as it
may be. This is especially true in West Bengal, where peasants are
officially considered the vanguard of a proletarian revolution.

The chief minister is certainly to blame, in part, for the crisis. And
with a general election expected next year, in which the Communists are
expected to do badly, there is talk that party bosses, wedded to the
outworn ideology that he has so sensibly forsaken, might force Mr
Bhattacharjee to quit. That would be a pity. India needs more leaders like Mr Bhattacharjee, who is a talented administrator, even if his political views remain enigmatic.

It’s remarkable for the Economist to show such a soft soft for a Marxist. But that may be because in its view he isn’t a typical Marxist but a "capitalist communist". Unconsciously, the cultured, literary chief minister, who graduated from prestigious Presidency College in Calcutta (Kolkata), betrays a certain elitism. It’s there in the last sentence of the Economist article:

Quoting Vladimir Mayakovsky—a Russian poet whose verse he has also
translated into Bengali—he says: “Proletarians arrive at communism from
below, but I from poetry’s sky plunge into communism, because without
it, I feel no love.”

Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee may love communism, but this incorruptible, cultured, literary, middle-class Bengali gentleman is no prole.

Calcutta goes to the polls

The world’s longest-ruling communist government looks likely to be returned to power for another five years in West Bengal. They have been in power for 29 years now — and it looks like there’s no reversing the red tide for now. As a Reuter’s report said: “Communists draw middle-class vote in West Bengal”.

Elections are being held over five days — today was only the third day — other parts of the state will go to the polls on May 2 and 8. But Reuters is already saying the communist-led Left Front coalition of leftist parties is looking forward to a seventh straight term in office in this eastern Indian state of 80 million people. Nearly 50 million are voters and the turnout was as high as 80 per cent on the first two days. I am sure the polling stations saw the same large crowds today when 12 million people were eligible to vote in Calcutta and two neighbouring districts for 76 seats in the 294-seat state assembly.

One reason for such a high turnout must be that people believe in exercising their right to vote.

But though the state has been voting for the communists for such a long time, it does not mean everybody is a communist. There are people who are not seriously interested in politics at all. But many of them may vote for the communists because they have ensured law and order.

And people respect Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, the gentlemanly, culturally inclined Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader with a spotless reputation who became chief minister of West Bengal in 2001.

He is a breath of fresh air after Jyoti Basu, the former Marxist chief minister.

Basu, who was chief minister from 1977 to 2001, is one of those leftist aristocrats. He was accepted as a leader, I suspect, partly because he belonged to the communist party in Britain when he went to study law there. Those colonial/Western connections count even among the communists in India. He was born well, married well, and his son did well under his rule even if the rest of the state did not.

West Bengal fell behind other states during the long rule of Basu. But the communists were far better organised than the other parties. They did good work in the villages and controlled the administrative machinery in the state.

Still, they faced a serious challenge in  2001 from a breakaway faction of the Congress party — which was out of power then but now runs the federal government in Delhi.

The communists still won the 2001 elections. That was the last time the state police forces, controlled by the communist state government, guarded the polling booths.

This time federal police forces have been deployed for a fairer election.

But this is an election the communists are expected to win fair and square. Because the new chief has done good work for the state.

Calcutta boasts new shopping malls, new apartment complexes. There are new jobs and investments. Someone visiting Calcutta for the first time may see it is a dusty overcrowded city with little remarkable about it. But we who were born and raised in Calcutta know how much it has changed since the bad old days of Jyoti Basu. That in itself deserves a vote of thanks.

Microsoft, India and Seattle

Having lived under the reign of Indira Gandhi, I never thought India would one day become a foreign investors’ darling. Yet there it is: India is now the most attractive country in the world for foreign direct investment after China, beating even the USA, according to management consultants AT Kearney, a report picked up not just by the Indian papers but London’s Financial Times as well.

True, India trails a long way behind China. The $5.3 billion invested in India in 2004 was only one-twelfth the $60.6 billion ploughed into China.

But India’s success is all the more remarkable because, unlike China, there is still considerable resistance — notably from the communists — to the growing foreign presence.

Typical is the attitude of the leftist government of West Bengal state, centred around Calcutta (Kolkata), which welcomes American technology, but protested when Americans held a joint exercise with the Indian air force at an air base in the state. West Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, a man of culture and usually good sense, even said he would have welcomed a military exercise with the Russians or any other country but not with the Americans. That the protesters gathered outside the air base dropped their placards and rushed to see the action when the exercise got under way is a different story, of course.

The point is India is attracting not just any old foreign investor but the leaders in technology, top names like Intel and Microsoft.

Bill Gates promised to invest $1.7 billion in India over the coming years. Indians following the news will know that, of course, but they should go online and read the reaction in Redmond and Seattle. Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports the concern there about more jobs going to Indians than to Americans.

Microsoft officials are quoted trying to soothe those fears but such fears are very real in today’s global economy. Indian engineers can be employed for only one-sixth the cost of Americans. The relentless logic  of globalisation dictates the obvious. Microsoft is an American company — yes, but it is competing in a global market.

We look for value for money, the best bargain, when we go shopping — not whether the product was made in our country. If we as consumers judge products by their price and quality, and not by the country where they are made, how can we expect the producers and manufacturers to run their businesses on patriotic ideals or simply in the national interest?

The Economist magazine used to mock Euopean governments for trying to prop up "national champions". I myself had a go at the communists earlier in this post. But what if their fears about foreigners are not entirely unfounded? Americans in Seattle also are expressing the same fears.