One has to accommodate only about sixty million people over an area of 203,000 square kilometers, the other is home to nearly 91 million, meaning 50% more, in a space of just over 88,000 sq. km. Should you even begin to compare the levels of development attained by the two without keeping these two pairs of stark, fundamental, unalterable facts very firmly in mind?
The first, if you haven’t guessed, is the currently favourite supermodel among Indian states, Gujarat; the second – you have obviously guessed – is our own sad West Bengal. Swapan Dasgupta’s edit-page article (one more eulogy for Narendra Modi) in the January 18 issue of The Telegraph made me check up a few things, and thereafter I have been thinking hard about how much Mr. Modi deserves all the encomiums and our leaders, be it Buddhadev Bhattacharjee or Ms. Mamata Banerjee, all the brickbats. Mr. Dasgupta is a veteran and informed journalist; when people like him start talking like that, one begins to wonder whether they are not being deliberately disingenuous, … inspirational leadership (Dasgupta’s last but one paragraph) is all very well, and I hold no brief for any of our local leaders regardless of their political colour, but I do wonder whether, given the ground realities, the greatest leaders we have heard of, be it Lincoln or Adenauer, Kemal Ataturk or Lee Kuan Yew or Subhas Bose (leave alone Mr. Modi) would have been able to do much better for West Bengal. It is always so much easier to criticize.
Yes, WB has been in a bad way for a very long time. Yes, Bengalis have much to be blamed for – they are as a rule lazy, uncooperative, quarrelsome, jealous and suspicious of material prosperity, and so on and so forth (and no leader can really change a whole population’s mindset, remember, certainly not in a few years). Yes, after Dr. Bidhan Roy, none of our CMs can be credited to have pursued any large, constructive long-term vision. Yes, we have not been able to make full use of our natural wealth and intellectual capital. Yes, our infrastructure is in shambles, by and large. Yes, we are saddled by a venal, incompetent, bloated bureaucracy. Yes, our educational and healthcare systems are creaking. But as I said, who has a good, practical idea, a magic wand, to get us out of this mess? Let us imagine putting someone like Mr. Modi in the CM’s chair. Can he wish away our long history of disasters and their consequences that refuse to go away – from terrible famines to partition-induced migration on an unimaginable scale that swamped every resource we had to the long fight to curb Naxalite-led threat of anarchy; to mention just three things that Gujarat has never faced? Has he been able to do a better job of maintaining communal peace if not amity (remembering that we have a far larger Muslim population than Gujarat)? Does he preside over a population ‘too poor to tax, too numerous to feed’, which has saddled our government with such a gigantic debt burden that it is currently having to live hand to mouth? Can he who gives away hundreds of thousands of acres of land on the cheap to tycoons to build industries on think of handling a situation where every nook and cranny is crawling with people who refuse to leave simply because they have nowhere to go – and every attempt to take over land for any public purpose at all, even roads, power plants and hospitals, threatens to turn into a bloodbath unless the losers are compensated on a scale which makes it either unaffordable or utterly unattractive to any investor? Can he alter a political culture which has seen a long decline into street hooliganism and organized browbeating of all but the very rich and powerful? And also – is there any real reason why Bengal needs to hang its head in shame, given that, despite such horrible odds, it has (until the early 1980s, at least, when it went into secular cultural decline) produced more big achievers in art, science, literature, music, philosophy and patriotism than virtually all other Indian states put together – however politically incorrect this sounds? (For Christ’s sake, Narendra Modi himself professes to revere and walk in the footsteps of a Bengali: his name was Narendra Dutta!)
My point is, we certainly need better leadership; we certainly need to get rid of a lot of ingrained bad habits, we certainly need to gird up our loins and make an all-out effort to hasten our rate of development so that we don’t end up at the bottom of the list: what we don’t need is foolish, motivated, malicious comparisons with those who shouldn’t be compared with. Here’s a little mischievous idea: let the World Bank or Mr. Manmohan Singh or Bill Gates give our current chief minister an interest-free fifteen year developmental loan of Rs. 100,000 crore, and simultaneously export about fifty million Bengalis to Gujarat for Mr. Modi to take care of, shooting them not allowed. We can come back and compare notes in the year 2028.
I am glad that Sunanda K. Datta Ray’s article on the same page of the next days’ issue of The Telegraph (“Laughing up his sleeve”) debunks many of Mr. Dasgupta’s tall claims on Modi’s behalf, and exposes how he has put a spin to the story by hiding all sorts of less than scintillating facts about his ‘vibrant’ Gujarat, including a) that a lot of other states, including Nitish Kumar’s Bihar and Navin Patnaik’s Odisha have been making the same sort of progress with far less chest thumping, b) that Gujarat is pretty low down the list of states in terms of many social development indices, no matter what the rise of multi-storeyed buildings and shopping malls and fancy cars in the cities hints otherwise, c) Modi’s increasing glamour as the national opposition’s poster-boy has been won to a great extent by default, by contrast with the UPA’s record of corruption combined with confusion and inaction, and, most tellingly, that d) the big moneybags, Indian or foreign, are going to sing loud paeans to any political master who makes it easy for them to avoid social obligations and reap ever bigger profits, so as far as big socio-political realities are concerned, only fools would take heed of their ‘opinions’. As I shall never stop underlining, businessmen never have to worry about anything other than bottom lines; even low level politicians have to think of far more, and far more serious things.
Not putting things in perspective is intellectual dishonesty, and intellectual dishonesty is the worst sort of dishonesty there can be. Yes, Mr. Dasgupta, I shall be glad to see Mr. Modi on the throne of India. If only to see him proving to be just another damp squib. India is not merely Gujarat, and as someone called Chandrababu Naidu, now forgotten, found out at great personal cost in Andhra Pradesh, running a government is not done very well by imitating corporate CEOs. Let Modi and his acolytes find out the hard way. It is a good thing that not only senior news editors in Delhi but top leaders in West Bengal don’t take him seriously.