When Narendra Modi started his bi-annual Vibrant Gujarat summit to attract investment in his state, the initiative was greeted with astonishing scepticism by the intelligentsia and media and hostility by the Congress-led Centre. It was cynically interpreted as a self-promotion, Modi jamboree. At the 2013 summit, for example, there was no Union minister present, despite the self-evident fact that the growth of Gujarat would add to the national growth. And, apart from the CEO of the Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor, the heads of public sector units gave the occasion a miss.
Fortunately, there are limits to how much politics can influence the course of investments in the post-licence raj India. That Vibrant Gujarat was more than just another fancy event in Gandhinagar’s wonderful convention centre owed entirely to Indian industry and foreign capital—both anxious to not miss out on the exciting Gujarat story. Yes, Modi did draw political mileage from the summits and his responsiveness to investments was a factor that contributed to the enthusiasm for his prime ministerial ambitions. In the process, Gujarat—and, by implication, India—was the big gainer.
It is a commentary on the efficacy of good ideas that global investor summits hosted by state governments have become the norm each winter. This year’s Vibrant Gujarat summit was preceded by similar exercises in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and even West Bengal.
As an efficiently-run, entrepreneur-friendly state, Vibrant Gujarat 2015 has naturally received generous coverage—and more so because the Prime Minister bequeathed the baby he nurtured to his successors in the state. But it is worth dwelling a little on the Vishwa Bangla event at the eco-park in Kolkata, enthusiastically hosted by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.
It is natural to view this abrupt attempt to sell West Bengal as an investment destination as a feeble attempt of the beleaguered state government to regain the political initiative. Whether she likes it or not, the image of Mamata Didi in the investor class is negative. Apart from being viewed as the lady that drove Ratan Tata’s precious Nano plant out of Singur—and into the welcoming arms of Modi in Gujarat—Mamata is widely viewed as an obstructionist who has imbibed all the regressive facets of the protest culture that has plagued West Bengal for the past 50 years. Her strident opposition to all the economic reforms initiated by the Modi Government has reinforced that perception.
The cumulative effects of this ultra-Left political culture has been devastating for the state. Once second to Maharashtra as a centre of manufacturing, Bengal is perhaps the only state that has experienced deindustrialisation. Industry shudders at the very mention of Bengal, regarding it as a state that is best left to pursue its quirky, entitlement-centric Gross Domestic Happiness. Bengalis are still very much in demand, but only outside Bengal. Small wonder that Kolkata often gives the impression of being one big retirement home. The productive classes appear to have bought a one-way ticket out of Bengal.
Having thrashed the Left in their own game, Mamata has grudgingly discovered that her ‘poriborton’ dream is beginning to drift into a nightmare. The surfeit of ponzi schemes—run with political protection—in the state is no accident. It is the paucity of legitimate investment opportunities that has prompted small savers into investing their money in dodgy instruments that promise high returns.
To recover, Bengal has to jettison the mindset of victimhood and permanent protest. Whether a Chief Minister too settled in her mercurial ways can lead this transformation is an open question. But at least it is reassuring that in hosting a business summit and attempting to sell Bengal as an investment destination, Mamata has recognised the need to travel down a different path.
India, as Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said in his speech last Wednesday, is both a “cooperative” federation and a “competitive” federal order. States are competing with each other to attract investments. Unless Bengal embraces the market economy, it is destined to remain a laggard. For Mamata the choice is stark: either join the emerging mainstream or remain doggedly socialist.
The Berlin Wall and the system associated with it collapsed in 1991. Bengal remains the last monument to the old order.
Sunday Times of India, January 11, 2015