By Amulya Ganguli
Given Mamata Banerjee’s mercurial temperament, it is not easy to say how serious she is about her effusive welcoming of American investment in West Bengal. Considering that she tries to outdo the Left in her aversion to the private sector – after all, she evicted the Tatas from Singur – and is known to be against SEZs and nuclear plants, her “suggestion” to Hillary Clinton during her visit to Kolkata that the US can invest in IT, education, health care, manufacturing and in the construction of a deep sea port in the Sunderbans underlines a remarkable change of stance.
If she doesn’t have second thoughts and the Americans accept her offer, then West Bengal’s economy will receive a huge boost. An American presence will also encourage the Indian corporate sector, which is at present wary of the chief minister, to consider investing in the state, forgetting what happened in Singur and Nandigram.
Apart from the economic boom, Mamata’s image will also be refurbished. At present she is seen as a grumpy naysayer and a believer in the public sector. But, once the American funds start pouring in, not only is it likely that her economic views will change, but she may well become more mellow. Already, her advice to her party men to check campus violence can be interpreted as a sign of a kinder, gentler Mamata – not an irascible, anti-reforms, self-centred politician that she is today, ready to put cartoonists in jail. From this aspect, the American involvement will be a lifeline to her and even make her a more reliable ally of the Manmohan Singh government.
Where the US is concerned, the reason for its interest in West Bengal is not far too seek. After long years of Leftist influence in the state – the first Left-wing government was formed in 1967 – the Americans can breathe easily unlike the time when Bengali officers in the consulate and the US information services in Kolkata felt like second class citizens where their invariably anti-American neighbours were concerned.
For the US, the ouster of the Marxists has coincided with other dramatic changes in the region. Unlike to the north-west of India, where terrorism stalks Pakistan and Afghanistan and Iran is poised to become a nuclear power, the areas to the north and south-east of India are on the verge of a positive transformation. Starting from Nepal, democracy is taking root in Bangladesh and Myanmar, opening up the possibility of reviving the old idea of a trade and transit route from Kolkata to Yangon to Singapore, which is now being described as the new silk route.
The advent of democracy in the region is a godsend for American business. But, the key is West Bengal. If the US can secure a foothold there, especially via the construction of a deep sea port, it will be a dream come true, not least because it will dispel the impression of Bengal is as incorrigibly anti-American. It may have been more a fad, of course, than a deeply held conviction. After all, many of those in the upper middle classes who routinely excoriated the Americans lived in posh localities and drank whiskey and rum in the evenings while praising Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh.
In any event, through all the years of Leftist rule, the Congress always received a higher percentage of votes than the CPI(M) – usually 40 per cent against 35 per cent. What enabled the Marxists to remain in power was the unity of the Left Front, which raised the latter’s percentage to nearly 50 per cent. It is now back to 40 per cent, which, like the similar percentage of the Congress earlier, can be regarded as a stable base of support. But, how much of it is intrinsically anti-American is difficult to say, if only because the US is no longer the arrogant superpower that it used to be while India is not the pushover that it was.
The Marxists and the Maoists are bound to use Mamata’s pro-American tilt to criticize her. But, it may make her more adamant about continuing Kolkata’s partnership with Washington, a unique arrangement whose basis was laid by the unprecedented visit by a US secretary of state to a chief minister. Moreover, since the small print in the new alliance envisages minimizing Chinese influence in Bangladesh and Myanmar, the Left’s anti-American propaganda can be interpreted as the action of a Chinese proxy.
The new arrangement will not be confined to West Bengal and the US alone, but is also likely to initiate a closer economic and cultural relationship between the two halves of Bengal. The cultural link was recently reaffirmed when the filmmakers of West Bengal and Bangladesh produced a film on the legendary folk artiste, Lalan Fakir, of undivided Bengal in the 19th century. If the partnership materializes, it will be a new beginning for eastern India. (IPA Service)