CALCUTTA'S COMMUNISTS DISCOVER CAPITALISM - February 1995
While most of the world has turned its back on Marxism, the Indian state of West Bengal remains a Communist stronghold. But even here changes are afoot. The Communist Party Marxist, which has been in power in Calcutta for the past eighteen years, has not only come to terms with capitalism. It's gone to great lengths to attract multinationals and other investors into West Bengal. Andrew Whitehead has been to Calcutta to report on the coming of age of Bengali Communism:
In New York, Singapore or even Bombay, it wouldn't seem out of place. Just another smart corporate suite with expensive modern art on the walls, thick pile carpet, leafy green plants and the latest in office decor. But it's not what you expect of a Communist bureaucrat in Calcutta.
Somnath Chatterjee gives every impression of being thoroughly at home in his new offices on the first floor of Calcutta's Council House Street. He shows visitors around with avuncular delight. It took just fifty-two days, he boasts, from commissioning to completion. In India, that's whirlwind speed. In Calcutta - where the work ethic is not always evident and everything takes three times longer than anyone could possibly imagine - it's almost beyond belief.
Mr Chatterjee fits the corporate bill quite well. He's an upper-class Bengali who qualified as a barrister at the Middle Temple in London, and came back to make a career in Indian politics. In the Communist Party to be precise. He's now the leader of the main Communist party in the lower house of the Indian Parliament.
That's not a sinecure. India's politics has remained stubbornly resistant to all the about-turns occasioned elsewhere by the end of the cold war. The Communist Party Marxist is the third biggest Parliamentary party.
But Somnath Chatterjee's now got a second, rather more challenging, job. The Communists who have ruled West Bengal for the past eighteen years have summoned him home - to win over new investors. A politician who has spent most of his life fighting the capitalist system - who's made hundreds of speeches denouncing the iniquities of an economic system based on private profit - now spends most of his day shaking hands with the entrepreneurs he once reviled, and encouraging them to come and invest their money in Calcutta.
The need is pressing. West Bengal used to account for 15% of India's industrial production. Now, the figure's 5%. Old staples such as jute are no longer profitable. Much of the plant is obsolete. The industry's being kept alive by public money the state government can ill afford. There's nothing left to spend on new public sector industry. And in India's rapidly liberalising economy, where states are jostling with each other to attract multinationals, establish joint ventures and look after entrepreneurs, Calcutta's Communist rulers know that unless they too put out the welcome mat, their state will become an industrial wasteland.
Last month, the Confederation of Indian Industry descended on Calcutta for its centenary gathering. An opportunity not lost on the state government. Calcutta put its best foot forward. Streets were swept, gutters cleaned, and cows herded off to the suburbs. Buildings were given a new lick of paint, weeds plucked from window sills, potholes filled, sewers hastily concealed. All cosmetic, of course. How could it be otherwise in Kipling's city of dreadful night, a by-word around the world - not entirely justly - for squalour and decay.
But Calcutta has solved its power supply problems. There used to be regular power cuts. Now it sells electricity to other parts of the country. It's extending the city's metro. There's a splendid new bridge over the Hooghly river - even if the roads either side are a bit of a let-down.
At Somnath Chatterjee's sumptuous new offices, every corner of the state bureaucracy has a booth. if you want to buy land for a factory, check on power supply, get some phones installed, find out about pollution control, one stop should do the lot. The new venture is called "shilpa bandhu", friend of industry. A curious choice of name for a state government which has built its fortunes befriending labour.
So keen are Calcutta's Communists to woo new investors, they have told their trades unions - once renowned for their militancy - to behave. Somnath Chatterjee delights in recounting how, just a few days ago, he had a call from a big industrialist about a labour problem. Within half-an-hour, he told me, it was all sorted out - and the company was very happy.
Bengali leftists have always combined Stalinist orthodoxy in ideology and icons with a fairly unscrupulous pragmatism over policy. They are now trying to outdo the free marketeers in seducing new investment. When it comes to a battle between Marx and mammon, Calcutta's Communists will take the money every time.