An image makeover: New face of India Inc.
STRUGGLE: The Left parties changed their position on private
investment under Basus chief ministership in West Bengal.
In a recent interview, West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb
Bhattacharjee expressed a view which can only be regarded as heresy by a
genuine Marxist. â€˜Private capital is the only way forward,â€™ he said.
â€˜Socialistic alternatives look good on paper, but are not practical
It is worth noting, however, that this preference may not have been
articulated if there had not been a significant change in recent years
in the image of the corporate sector. Public perception about
businessmen is now noticeably different from the time when Jawaharlal
Nehru famously called for hanging every blackmarketer from the nearest
It was a call which resonated in every household since the Indian
merchant class did not enjoy the best of reputations. If the popular
films tended to show politicians as corrupt, the trader was invariably
projected as unscrupulous and greedy.
Even today, the standard Marxist charge against the corporate sector,
which is voiced by the CPM leaders in Delhi, is its supposedly
insatiable greed. The centreâ€™s â€˜neo-liberalâ€™ policies, they say, pander
to the profit motive of the entrepreneurs at the expense of the common
It is patent enough that at least these leaders continue to believe
that their diatribes will be widely appreciated.
Among those who apparently share this view is Kerala Chief Minister
V. S. Achuthanandan, who put on display his anti-private sector
commitments by tearing down a Tata signpost in Munnar. Yet, if the same
industrial group is feted by another chief minister of the same party,
there has to be a valid reason born of bitter experience.
As a young CPM leader, Bhattacharjee saw the steady decimation of
flourishing industrial enterprises in his state such as jute, cotton,
tea, paper, foundries, factories, engineering and chemical units,
railway workshops and even hotels.
All these closures were justified on the grounds that they were run
by fly-by-night, asset-stripping operators, who cheated the workers by
not paying adequate wages and the government by not paying taxes.
In political terms, these businessmen were also seen to be in league
with the Congress, the party of vested interests in the eyes of the
Left. The symbol of this reactionary group was the Syndicate against
which the â€˜socialistâ€™ Indira Gandhi was supposedly waging a battle. The
working class was egged on by the communists, therefore, to join the
struggle against the business sector and the party associated with it.
What was more, the battle was seen by the Left as a prelude to the
overthrow of the landlord-capitalist state and the establishment of
Since revolution was not a tea party, as Mao Zedong said, violence
was also seen as an integral part of the struggle against the class
All of this has been politically rewarding for the Left, as its
30-year-rule in West Bengal demonstrates.
However, the comrades have been also helped by the fact that the
Congress has had no leader of stature who could effectively confront
them, especially after Indira Gandhiâ€™s â€˜socialismâ€™ ran into the dry
sands of the Emergency.
After Siddhartha Rayâ€™s defeat in 1977, neither Pranab Mukherjee nor
Abdul Ghani Khan Chaudhury could present themselves as credible
alternatives to the towering figure of Jyoti Basu.
And yet, notwithstanding the Leftâ€™s political success, the steady
decline of West Bengalâ€™s industrial position in the aftermath of the
flight of capital because of militant trade unionism meant that the
state had to look for ways of employment generation.
The change in the Leftâ€™s stance on private investment had taken place
even when Basu was the chief minister. The inadequacies of the
â€˜socialistic alternativesâ€™ were becoming clearer by the day. It was
obvious that loss-making had become synonymous with the public sector.
It had become nearly impossible for the state government to continue
subsidising their existence with no respite in sight. Yet, although the
Left had begun to pay the price of its dogmatic follies, it was a
reality to which most of its leaders chose to turn a blind eye.
Bhattacharjeeâ€™s pro-industrialisation policies still face resistance
from within both the CPM and the Left Front as well as from Leftist
economists, whose objections have been dismissed by the chief minister
as â€˜academicâ€™. The other parties of the Left Front such as the CPI, the
RSP and the Forward Bloc are openly critical.
The chief ministerâ€™s task, however, has been made relatively easy by
the change in the customary image of the businessman as dishonest. It is
a phenomenon which is not confined to West Bengal. Across India, the
corporate sector has gained a respectability which it had never had in
its entire history.
How this transformation has taken place is not easy to define. Part
of it is perhaps due to the new generation of young and articulate men
and women at the head of their companies.
They are entirely different in their easy-going attitudes from their
dour predecessors, whose secretiveness may have been due to the
prevalence of the licence-permit raj, when businesses could not be
conducted without subterranean links with politicians and bureaucrats.
The other aspect which has helped the business world is its
efficiency, which is in striking contrast to the experience of the
average person with the public sector before 1991.
But for this new image, it might not have been possible for
Bhattacharjee to say that â€˜it was very difficult for me to convince
Ratan (Tata)â€™ to invest in West Bengal because Uttarakhand had made an
attractive offer. In an earlier period, it would have been unthinkable
for a politician to express such eagerness in courting a tycoon. But not
in todayâ€™s brave new corporate world.