Addressing the Bengal Global Business Summit in Kolkata last week, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee pledged her government would work in entrepreneur-friendly ways. She listed cheap labour, abundant power, a land bank, industry-friendly policies and access to highways among factors that made her state an ideal investment destination. The attributes listed by Banerjee do attract investors, but in an era of competitive federalism, when every government is willing to walk the extra mile to attract industry, these are not sufficient. In fact, capital chases states that offer the best ecosystem for it to flourish. Entrepreneurs may not want the government to “work as their employee” — Banerjee promised her government would do so — but they certainly expect it to ensure that the rule of law prevails and keep non-state actors on a tight leash. West Bengal’s record on this front, however, is disappointing — reports of mob violence from Malda and Howrah overshadowed the business summit in Kolkata.
The culture of political violence in the state dates back to the 1960s and has caused the flight of capital and skilled labour. Three decades of Left rule only exacerbated the trend. The CPM and its allies sought to monopolise the instruments of violence. The Left Front government’s attempt to re-industrialise the state in its last term in office failed because it tried to force the process using the party machinery. The party, which became synonymous with the government, had turned into the latter’s coercive arm. Banerjee won the mandate in the 2011 assembly election because she promised “poribortan” or change. Instead of shedding old paradigms of mobilisation and patronage, however, she has only sought to replicate the structures and strategies the Left Front had crafted to consolidate state power. Her government has also been accused of pandering to communal forces — questions have been asked of its failure to take prompt action after a rally organised by a Muslim outfit in Malda turned violent. In a repeat of the past, the opposition accuses the ruling party of targeting its functionaries. If the local committee tyrannised the public under one regime, it is the syndicate in another — the names have changed, but the reign of extortionist syndicates that enjoy political patronage continues in West Bengal.
For West Bengal to attract industry and broadbase its economy, its political class will need to restore civility and order and the sanctity of institutions. Else, the mob will continue to dominate the street, and capital will stay away.