Saturday, June 4, 2011

Political Poribartan in West Bengal: A blueprint for ushering in real change

West Bengal just had an historic election. The thirty year rule of the Left Front government has come to an end. In the following analysis I look at the political future of in Bengal, and the policy options before the new government.  A version of this article was publisehd in the Anada Bazar Patrika on June 30, 2011. Shorter versions of this article have been published in the Financial Express and Pragati magazine.

It has been a few weeks, since Mamata Banerjee and her newly elected team of ministers took the oath of office. True to her style, the new Chief Minister of West Bengal has set a frantic pace for herself, holding innumerable meetings and making surprise visits to hospitals and other public spots, firing off instant orders, cajoling the government staff to serve the people better. 

While Mamata Banerjee’s intentions are clear, she continues to be the dominant face of her government and party. There is a limit to the number of places she could try and visit, and the number of orders she could issue, given the enormity of the tasks before her following her historic election, defeating the Marxist led Left Front government in Bengal which had been in office continually for nearly three and a half decades.

Football is like a religion in Bengal. A burst of speed and waves of initial attack on the opponent’s goal may be a good strategy at the start of a fresh game, but is not sustainable over the full length of the game. First, there is the danger that in this rapid forward thrust towards the goalposts on the other side, players can easily get stretched, and distracted, and end up conceding a goal themselves, from a counter-attack by the other side. Secondly, there needs to be a much more detailed planning and preparation, a range of strategies and tactics to adopt, as the game progresses.

Mamata Banerjee is leading from the front, as the captain and manager of her team. But as the Chief Minister of Bengal, will she have the time and energy left to make the kind of sustained reforms on policy fronts that alone can revive the fortune of West Bengal. She is counting on help from diverse academics, intellectuals, and technocrats to help her shape her policies. But politics is not just about technical expertise, political leaders need to give clear direction to her team, and then needs to make her case to the public in a way that makes political sense. The challenge before her is how to convert good politics in to good policies. The game has begun, and the clock is ticking away, time is no longer on her side.

She ran a campaign on the agenda of change, and the huge mandate she has won only indicates the sky high expectation of the people. While the people have endorsed the Trinamool Congress led alliance, the real challenge for the new government is now before them – to govern in a way that will meet the expectations of the people.

For the past four years, Mamata Banerjee’s political career has been rising, powered by the agitations she led in Singur and Nandigram, against the forcible land acquisition policy and heavy handed action by the previous Left Front government in 2006 and 2007. For the first time she breached the formidable rural base of the CPI(M), in the Panchayat election of 2008. Then she joined hands with the Congress, in the general election of 2009, and for the first time humbled the Left Front in over 30 years, winning 26 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats. Then in 2010, she fought the municipal elections across the state on her own, and again won in majority of urban areas, including Kolkata. The political momentum was clearly in her favour when she formed the grand coalition with the Congress to take on the Left Front in the assembly election of 2011.

For the first time people in West Bengal had a credible political opposition to the CPI(M). The election drew the curtain on the 34 year rule of the world’s only communist led democratically elected government, which had won a record seven successive elections since 1977. 

Revolution thro’ the ballot 

Mamata Banerjee’s electoral achievement, in the 2011 election, is historic! It is a local version of the 1977 epic general election when a people’s movement, across India, brought about the defeat of the Congress party at the national level, for the first time in Independent India. That historic election 34 years ago established the foundation of India’s electoral democracy, with the first constitutional transition of national government through the ballot box. But today, while many remember that historic event, not many may have any fond memories of the three years that the first non-Congress government ruled the country. And the same people, who had voted them in 1977, voted them out in 1980, electing the Congress again.

Today, Mamata Banerjee’s party has been propelled to political power by ordinary people at the grassroots, securing for her nearly 49% of the popular vote. If the expectations of the people are not met, the disenchantment will quickly grow. Higher the level of expectations, greater might be the sense of disappointment. If a sense of purpose and performance do not become evident, people’s support could easily turn in to ire and anger.

Just 5 years ago, Buddhadeb Bhatacharjee had led the Left Front to a resounding reelection victory riding on the promise of Brand Buddha, of industrial revival and economic opportunities. Trinamool Congress of Mamata Banerjee struggled to qualify as the legally recognized opposition party, with less than 10% of the 294 seats in the assembly. Not many believed that she could politically win the state, although her ability to take on a political fight was well established.

But within a couple of years ‘Brand Buddha’ had begun to lose its shine as the protests against land forcible acquisition build up. The violent response from the police and the cadres of the CPI(M), shocked most people, rural as well as urban population. Suddenly the protests against land acquisition had turned in to a wider issue of dignity and justice, touching millions.

This time, Mamata Banerjee provided a great vision, reviving the place of Bengal in the Indian rubric. She has promised peace and prosperity, to reinvigorate agriculture and industry, to turn Kolkata in to London, Darjeeling in to Switzerland, and to build on the rich cultural and intellectual heritage of Bengal. She sought to remind voters of Bengal glorious cultural roots, and offered a promising future.

The Trinamool Congress campaign was in sharp contrast to that of the Left Front. The latter had a two-point agenda, harping on the hollowness of Mamata Banerjee’s poll promises, and apologizing for some vague mistakes made by the party, while seeking one more opportunity. It was really strange that the Left Front hardly showcased the record of it own government in the past five years of double digit economic growth, nor did they point to any particular successes from their 34 year long uninterrupted rule. The dominant sense of the Left Front’s campaign was fear mongering and angry outbursts. On the other hand, Mamata Banerjee not only highlighted the atrocities under the Left Front, but also provided a grand vision of reviving Bengal’s culture and economy.

The new Chief Minister has set very clear timeline, for the first 100 days, for the 200 days, and the next three years. At the very least this has provided a benchmark to hold her government to account. More importantly, this may provide additional impetus to the new government to think out of the box, and try to meet the people’s expectations. 

Beyond symbolism 

While on the day of being sworn in, Mamata Banerjee set some new precedents and symbolizing her campaign promise of staying close to people on the ground. She invited people from very diverse walks of life, celebrities and commoner, to witness the oath ceremony. She then walked the one and a half kilometers from the Governor’s House to the Writers’ Building, the state secretariat, through tens of thousands of her admirers and supporters, who had gathered to share a bit of history in the making.

But political symbolism is no substitute for political performance, which alone can help sustain the credibility of the symbolic gestures. Mamata Banerjee’s political capital may deplete quickly unless she can find ways to improve the performance of her government in a very visible form and in a relatively short time.

She does not have to rediscover the wheel, though, since there are quite a few examples of Chief Ministers who have been attempting to turn their state around in a relatively short time. Law and order have been a key issue, in West Bengal, as it has been in states like Assam and Bihar. Improvement in the law and order situation, it is believed, contributed significantly to the reelection of the ruling parties in these states. 

Change, not revenge 

Mamata Banerjee has been saying that she wants change not revenge (Badal chai, Badla noi,). In addition to seeking to restrain her jubilant supporters who may seek to target the activists of the Left Front, she needs to show an improvement of general law and order situation in the state.

Over the past decade, extortions in one form or another has been almost institutionalized in West Bengal. For instance, it is not uncommon for house owners to have a visit from local youth club, if he builds additional rooms or gives a room on rent. Hardly any property can be developed without satisfying demands of some elements. Then there is the feeling among many that the police do not entertain complaints unless approved by appropriate political authority. At every festival, local youths stop commercial vehicles demanding a donation from the hapless drivers.

West Bengal has a notorious record of political violence, quite apart from those related to the Naxalites. Post election violence has been a routine feature, over the past decade. Supporters of political parties have attacked each other, killed hundreds, burnt houses, and driven out many out of their homes. This time, there have been a few instances of attacks on political activists of different parties, but so far these have been far fewer than in the past.

Mamata Banerjee has promised a change in political culture, and it is this culture of political violence that she needs to break. Perhaps this is the reason why even before the results of the election were announced she had been urging her supporters not to organize big celebrations and victory rallies. Rather she sought to channel the energy of her supporters to sing Tagore’s song and be in the constituency to thank the people, and to focus on the task of bringing about the promised change. 

More critically, an attempt to put a stop to the politics of vendetta, would allow the space and time to focus on the key changes that are necessary in a politically less polarized environment. 

Depoliticisation of administration 

Politicisation of the police force has been a big issue in Bengal for quite some time. There have been allegations of the police being infiltrated by CPI(M) cadres, and that they worked only as per the direction of the party leadership at different levels. But it can be changed relatively easily. A political decision need to be taken that political intervention in the basic police function will not be tolerated. Once the message permeates out to the rank and file of the police force, those who had earlier politically compromised themselves will either get isolated within or have to change to their approach.

With her resounding message of change, it is reasonable to believe that their will be significant sections of people in all organizations, including the police and the administration, who given the political lead towards performance and professionalism, will soon be able to bring about the necessary changes and show results. It is these professional and dedicated police personnel who need to be assured that they should act without political consideration, and that they will not be penalized if they act impartially and professionally.

The discovery of huge cache of arms from different villages in rural Bengal almost every day, since the day election results came out, is an indication of what is possible, once the message of change permeates to the grassroots. Ordinary people seem to be coming forward with information and helping the police to unearth these weapons, something that would not have happened a month ago. Clearly, the winds of change have started blowing at the grassroots.

Today, a lot of people in Bihar believe that the most basic change that Nitish Kumar had been able to bring about was in policing, which dramatically helped in improving the law and order situation most visibly, within a very short time. This was a low hanging fruit!

One of the first decisions of the new cabinet has been to institute a committee to review the instances of political prisoners languishing in various jails. While this is a very welcome step, equally it is very important to acknowledge that West Bengal has a history of political violence, and most political parties have engaged in it at one time or another. It could be cathartic to institute a political reconciliation commission, where people of all political shades could come up and submit evidence of political violence, and also admit to their own roles in it. The idea would not be to hold anyone guilty, but to document and publicly acknowledge these tragic instances, and build popular pressure on the political leadership of all parties to eschew political violence.

In this environment of change, such a political reconciliation could truly initiate change in the political culture of the state. Political differences could then be legitimately channeled through the democratic space, rather than outside it. 

Recognising land rights 

However, the first cabinet decision was to return 400 acres of land in Singur to the families who were reluctant give their land for the Tata Nano project. The Trinamool Congress is also against forcible acquisition of land. However, recognizing and protecting land rights is only the first critical step towards substantively changing the land laws. The land rights need to be converted in to clear title. The title needs to be easily tradable, so that the owner is in a position to maximize the value of the property. But the value of the property is dependent primarily on what use it can be legally put to. After all, value of land is function of the use it could be put to agriculture, residential or commercial.

The political durability of the Left Front government has been largely due to “operation barga” - the share cropping rights of farmer that the government recognized in rural Bengal. Part of the problem in Singur was the lack of clarity about compensation and rehabilitation of those who may not have title to the land, but still had share cropping rights on that land. The Left Front government made the fatal political mistake in believing that since they undertook they gave land to the tiller, they could also take it away from the tiller.

There needs to be a new arrangement between land owners and share croppers where perhaps they could each hold a certain percentage shares to the land title. There could be various ways to compensate the land owners, either through a land bank or land fund. Also, if the share cropper wants to sell his share of the land, then that could be purchased back by the land owner, or the owner could get a share of the sale proceeds.

None of these steps may be ideal or perfectly just. But this could help cut the Gordian knot which has tied up huge tracts of rural land. A vast majority of cases clogging the lower levels of judiciary relate to land disputes. Bringing about such changes would free up not just the land, but also huge amount of dead capital that is currently locked up in land.

For instance, farmers could start a company on the basis of their land ownership, and convert parts of the land for commercial and residential development, while maintaining agriculture in other areas. It would be also pertinent to ask why it is right to encourage industry to grow, and control hundreds of areas of land, while farmers are expected to survive on small parcels, and legally prohibited to expand their land holding because of land ceiling restrictions.

This will require a reform in the zoning laws as well. Bengal hosts a huge number of small businesses and workshops, a very large number of them in the informal sector. These provide the bulk of employment opportunities to people. Legalising these properties would open up huge potential for investment, opening enormous economic and employment opportunities.

Recognising land rights, documenting land ownership, facilitating land transactions, freeing up land use, will also help in diffusing the apparent conflict between agriculture and industry.

The outcome of the election in West Bengal will have an impact on the national political agenda. The political significance of land rights, and respect for property rights, has now been firmly established. 

Cost of doing business 

The cost of such bottlenecks is increasingly becoming clear. Registering land and businesses is an extremely time consuming and costly exercise in India, more so in West Bengal. Studies like the “Doing Business” report brought out by the World Bank, has estimated that to register a property or business in Kolkata, it could take anything between 100 to over 250 days, while in some other parts of the country it takes between 20 to 40 days. Eliminating these unnecessary and cumbersome procedures, would not only greatly reduce delays, and reduce corruption, but also attract investment and improve efficiency.

Without a basic change the philosophy of governance that looked at the population with degree of suspicion, and attempted to restrain them with the proverbial red tape. In such a situation, corruption was a necessary corollary as people grasped at anything to escape the stranglehold of that red tape. On the other hand, some people close to the government agencies found an economic opportunity in the bureaucratic web that ensnared the citizen.

Therefore, unless Mamata Banerjee is able to adopt her good governance philosophy which will truly hold the common citizen at the centre of attention, and simplify and eliminate the maze of procedures that obstruct every step the people may take, real change in governance will not be possible.

The new Chief Minister and her cabinet may want to set an example, they may attend office on time, work efficiently, and be personally incorruptible, but without change in the procedures reducing scope for administrative arbitrariness and discretion, the common man will remain a hostage in the hand of the different government agencies.

Man does not live by bread alone! Over the past five years, West Bengal experienced a relatively high economic growth of 12-14% in per capita state domestic product. Yet, the Left Front government lost the election by a huge margin, primarily because of the sense of injustice that prevailed among the people. With better economic performance, the UPA2 was reelected at the national level, and the Congress performed much better in 2009, than in 2004. In contrast, the ruling Congress party in Assam was reelected despite the sharp fall in growth rate from 13% to 7% in the last few years, but the improved prospect of peace made the people reelect the party with a bigger margin. A much better industrial growth did not assure the re-election of DMK led coalition, rather the spectre of corruption and the prevailing sense of injustice decimated the ruling party in the recent election in Tamil Nadu. 

Devolving political power 

Mamata Banerjee has also promised to take substantive steps to tackle two of the hotspots in the states, the Maoists in the jangalmahal areas in the western parts of the state, and the Gorkha agitation in Darjeeling. She wants to engage in a dialogue, and holds the promise of a special development package to people in these areas.

But anyone who has followed various insurgency and separatist movements in different parts of the country knows that throwing money to buy peace rarely works. What is needed is a genuine political empowerment at the grassroots.

Perhaps it is not a coincidence that she dreamt of turning the hills of Darjeeling in to Switzerland. But Switzerland does not only offer scenic beauty and modern living, but also provides the most vigorous example of bottom-up democracy. The Swiss provide a federal model where most of the powers are held at the local and cantonal level, and the national authorities are largely dependent on what flows from the lower and local levels of the community to the top. And unlike most of Europe, this bottom-up participatory democracy in Switzerland has been able to nurture a country out of the linguistic, religious and ethnic diversities. The peace and prosperity in Switzerland is a consequence of it truly devolved federal polity.

The Left Front heralded the panchayat system in rural Bengal as a means to help the party control the population. Mamata Banejree has to make the panchayat truly represent the people, rather than any political party.

Mamata Banerjee may do really well to look more closely at the Swiss model of bottom-up democracy which empowers citizens, and recognizes their dignity and freedom, and adapt these to her philosophy of governance, particularly with regards to the diversities in the jangalmahal and Darjeeling. Such an approach will also significantly reduce the financial stress being experienced by the state government. 

Restoring fiscal health 

It is widely acknowledged that the fiscal condition of West Bengal is rather grim. The high economic growth over the past five years has not helped expand the tax base. Mamata Banerjee expects the centre to help her government through the fiscal difficulties. But it is here that she may need a real change in approach.

Development that she has promised is unlikely to come increasing “development expenditure”. India provides a stark example of ballooning development expenditure over the past decades, but very little real development changing lives of people at the grassroots. And this is not just about corruption.

Over a century ago, Tagore had noted from his various attempts to promote village development that the real challenge was to change the mindset of the people, to make them believe in themselves and therefore initiate the much needed change themselves. Tagore realized quite the hard way that despite his good intentions, and willingness to spend money to try and help the villagers, if the people didn’t have the self-belief they would not be able to seize the opportunities that may come their way.

Over the past three decades, with the Left Front completely dominating almost all spheres of life, particularly in rural Bengal, changing the mindset would be biggest challenge. In such a situation, throwing more money to usher in development may make breed even more dependence, rather than independence and self-confidence.

Politically, most people have very little idea of fiscal deficit, or tax codes or rates. Ordinary people primarily see the impact of economic policies either through price rise and inflation, or lack of economic opportunities.

The priority for the new government should be to cut the procedural red tape, and deregulate, so that supply of goods and services may increase. This would partly reduce the inflationary pressure. Secondly, the government needs to remove the economic regulations and bottlenecks that have strangulated the capacity of people to seek new economic opportunities.

These two strategies would not only open new frontiers for the people to explore new economic opportunities, but also significantly reduce the demand for government expenditure. With this fiscal consolidation, Mamata Banerjee’s government would be able to key enablers of development, law and order, and basic infrastructure.

It is always very tempting for the people’s representatives, particularly when the sit on the treasury benches to believe that they could solve all the problems if only they had the money. There can’t be a bigger political fallacy. Apart from economic inefficiencies ingrained in this approach, it also opens the door for huge corruption. Politically, however, even in the best case scenario of government led delivery of development, there is no way for the government will be able to keep pace with the spiraling expectation of the people. It is no coincidence that promises of free electricity and water, soon transforms in to colour television sets and computers, yet the ruling parties, more often than not, are humbled at the next electoral outing. The defeat of the DMK in Tamil Nadu election 2011, despite delivering the colour television sets over the past 5 years, provides sombre reminder that electoral freebees do assure political power.

It is this mindset that Mamata Banerjee would need to change among her MLAs and ministers. If she can do that, the state’s fiscal health will recover quite fast. 

Economic opportunities 

The new government has promised to develop economic clusters to promote opportunities for development and growth. But historically, clusters have evolved locally out of necessity when the economic environment allowed it to grow. Devolving decision making to municipalities, wards and panchayats, and removing zoning restrictions, economic clusters would grow on its own without any state assistance.

Increasingly, across the world, economic wellbeing is a function of education and skill of the workforce, as well their health. In both these critical areas, West Bengal has fallen steadily behind many other states. There are fewer colleges, universities and technical institutes in Bengal today, than many other parts of the country. Availability of hospital beds as a proportion of the population is also significantly lower in Bengal than desirable.

Mamata Banerjee has promised to build educational and health infrastructure across the state. But given the fiscal situation of the state, this may neither be easy nor quick. While she focuses on stabilizing the fiscal situation, and gradually try to build the educational and health infrastructure, she could very easily allow private investment in these two critical areas. Given the high demand for education and health services, it should be possible to attract investment in these areas. One gets a glimpse of the scale of this latent demand for education from the number of coaching institutes, computer training and English learning centres that have sprouted across the state. Rather than shacking legitimate investment in these urgent areas, her government should focus on instances of fraudulent practices, and allow competition between private and public service providers to stimulate better quality of service.

A political advantage of this approach is that entrenched vested interests in the existing public sector would not feel immediately threatened by the change. Once the competition sets in they will see the inevitable logic of perform or perish.

For instance, the health insurance for the poor of the kind implemented in Andhra Pradesh could go a long way in improving access to health care services in Bengal. The poor are insured by the government, and the patients could go to any of the health care facilities, public or private, and get treated, with the insurance companies reimbursing the hospitals. 

Politics of Mamata Banerjee 

She has repeatedly said that she is not against leftist ideology, but against the bogus leaders of the left, particularly the CPI(M). The communist party in India is truly unique in the world. It is their willingness to work within the constitutional democratic framework of India, yet continuing to hold Karx Marx, Vladmir Lenin, Joseph Stalin as their icons, that make Indian communists a very rare breed. They coined the term “democratic centralization” in an attempt to explain the contradiction. Two decades after the fall of the communist empire in Russia, Eastern Europe and Central Asia, the Indian communists continue to claim that the ideal of a socialist revolution under the leadership of the communist party is a valid one. The collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic was a consequence of failure to genuinely apply those ideals by the communist party, rather than any flaw in those ideals.

The economic stagnation coupled with political arrogance on display during the three decades of Left Front rule in Bengal, was not just a failure of the leadership, but a consequence of the communist ideology – economic scarcity, perpetuation of poverty and institutionalization of fear in an attempt to keep a lid on the aspirations of the people. These characteristics are the hallmark of all communist countries in the world, only in Bengal, this was legitimized through successive electoral victories.

But in a democratic polity, ideological purity is not virtue if it adversely affects political performance. Once the prevailing sense of injustice reached a critical mass in the aftermath of the violence in Singur and Nandigram, politics of fear was no longer sufficient to keep the CPI(M)’s hold on power. And Mamata Banerjee seized on this sense of injustice, and found the opportunity to revive her political career, emerging as a credible alternative to the Left Front.

She is also a rare politician in India, who is not tainted by any scam nor embroiled in any corruption case, despite being in politics for over three decades. While her obviously simple life style has added to her political credibility, but this is not sufficient to keep her political stock high, as her predecessor as the Chief Minister may clearly vouch.

In the democratic political arena that is increasingly competitive, Mamata Banerjee has been the first one to acknowledge the need for performance. She would do well not to get bogged down by any political ideology that may adversely affect the performance of her government. That would open a whole range of policy options for her to try out from, in search of ways to improve the performance of her government. Today, only she can unlock the unlimited potential for change. 

Ushering in change 

India has changed significantly in the past 20 years. The economy has grown, poverty has been falling, and India is seen to be capable of seeking new opportunities that a globalizing world provides. The success of the IT industry has not only changed the perception of India abroad, but also given a new confidence to Indians. It is not a coincidence that this economic transformation is taking place while the politics has fragmented and become increasingly competitive. The diminishing dominance of the Congress played a significant role in ushering in changes in policy that improved economic performance.

Almost every state in India has witnessed a growing intensity of political competition. The increased political competition, forced political leaders to think of performance of their government, and explore policy options that could help them deliver, and improve their chances of re-election.

Bengal clearly missed out on the political churning experienced in the rest of the country, and consequently missed out on the economic changes increasingly visible elsewhere in the country. The lack of political competition in Bengal had ensured that Left Front could win seven consecutive elections to the state assembly. This time there was a dramatic change in the political landscape. With the first credible political challenge posed by Mamata Banerjee, people in Bengal seized the possibility of change, and the political tide turned against the Left Front.

Whether Mamata Banerjee’s government is able to bring about the change she has promised only time will tell. But one change that has already taken place - citizens of Bengal are much more politically empowered, having brought about this dramatic change in their political space. And the voters may cherish their new found political voice, and could be ready to change again if Mamata Banerjee’s government fails to live up to their expectations.

A century ago, Gopal Krishna Gokhale had famously said that what Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow. Today, Bengal has steadily slipped from that pedestal. Mamata Banerjee has promised to restore Bengal lost glory. But she has to contend with two resources that are constantly running out, time and money.

Yet, change is possible. Some of the steps outlined above do not require her to provide the money, and could deliver visible results in a relatively short time. Performance would help build the political capital necessary to undertake some of the major structural and governance reforms. The politician in Mamata Banerjee will be the first one to recognize the value of political capital. The political entrepreneur in her should seize the small window of opportunity and lay the foundation for fundamental change, take the small but immediate steps towards a new Bengal. The rest will be history. 

And if she fails, Mamata Banerjee would become history. Reminding us once again of the immortal line of the Bengali author Syed Mustafa Ali, “The same tradition has continued!” And the tragedy of Bengal may continue.