Neither Karl Marx, who authoured The Poverty of Philosophy, nor M. Proudhon, who wrote The Philosophy of Poverty in 1847 could perceive how relevant the titles of their works would be for the state of West Bengal’s Assembly elections 164 years later. It is not as though the subject matter of the controversy between them has any bearing at all for the election at hand in 2011. Sometimes though, the shell assumes greater significance than the nut itself, or else why should they have coined a word such as ‘nutshell’? And what, in a nutshell, is the situation of West Bengal?
Let us address the issue though from a somewhat simplistic point of view, one that any run of the mill economist would subscribe to. If economists are to be trusted, then a price has to be paid for acquiring anything one desires. A producer, for example, must incur a cost to produce his output. And he is satisfied if the sales revenue adequately exceeds the costs. The same logic applies to consumers. Consumption of commodities and services involves payment. Further, in a free society at least, the consumer derives a satisfaction that normally exceeds the cost of purchase.
Like production and consumption, which are instances of change from one state to another, all changes are costly and more often than not, the cost cannot be viewed as a simple monetary loss. Perhaps the closest example at hand in this context is the story of Singur. The Nano factory would have industrialized a primarily agricultural region, changing thereby an agrarian society into an industrial community. The cost involved not merely the farmers’ loss of the land they tilled for an income. As events have demonstrated, there were other costs too surrounding an adjustment to a new way of life. The fact that the Tatas were driven away probably demonstrates the simple economic truth that the benefits of industrialization they promised appeared too small in the eyes of the potential beneficiaries compared to the multifarious costs they would be called upon to incur to accept the change. Neither the benefits nor the costs were all too clearly defined, but there is little doubt that the people living in the region, or at least a large number of them who thought rationally, did engage in a cost-benefit calculation and concluded that the costs exceeded the benefits. Consequently, when state power attempted to force the ‘benefits’ down their throats, they revolted.
Assuming that a section of politicians, the opposition if you will, was responsible for the uprising, amounts probably to putting the cart before the horse. The opposition had surely used the brewing resentment to attract people’s support towards itself, but in its incipient stage at least, the public antipathy was not the opposition’s creation. And, in a democratic society of course, it is only too natural for a given set of rulers to be usurped from power by its competitors. Judged by the current attitudes and statements of the people who ruled West Bengal for the last 34 years, however, this simple truth does not seem to have dawned upon them. Needless to say, one cannot rule out corrupt practices surrounding the drive to halt the Left juggernaut in its tracks, but classics in history, such as the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, teach us that corruption has never been a one sided game.
Nonetheless, a suggestion of being dislodged from the seat of power seems to sound as foolish to the occupants of Writers’ Building as the Napoleonic ‘impossible’, or, probably, as absurd as the dinosaurs considered any thought of their extinction a million years ago. Yet, however impossible the emerging scenario might appear to the powers that be, the approaching wheels of democracy seem to be sending precisely the message the rulers wish to turn a blind eye towards. And what is making their publicly displayed sense of incredulity vis-à-vis a possible defeat in the elections look totally unconvincing is the state of the exchequer. Even if they are returned back to the Writers’ Building, there are reasons to suspect that they will have little to offer to the people of the state other than a mendicant order. They are perilously close to preaching a ‘philosophy of poverty’ in other words, one that Gautama Buddha might have approved, but certainly not the Marxists who flew into power in 1977, flapping their dialectical wings. The fortunate amongst them are no longer around. The unfortunate few are hopping across television channels, explaining to gullible members of the populace that accumulating enormous debts is a way of life for the entire country, and not Bengal alone, without bothering to locate the creditors who will assure that the debtors will live in perpetual bliss.
If all this appears to be unpalatable, the tragedy alas does not end here. The reverse side of the coin, the supporters of the opposition in other words, should probably hold their euphoria in leash as well. A comparison of costs and benefits applies to the opposition as forcefully as it does to the ageing class of Left rulers. Removing the latter from power is quite obviously a costly affair, involving, if politicians, social commentators and the media are to be trusted, entities as precious as human lives. What, however, constitutes the benefits? The primary benefit, as most people seem to believe, lies in exorcising the supposed fiend. So far so good, but life does not stop after retrenchment, neither for the retrenched nor for those who hand out the pink slips.
What will society look like once the evil is banished? The manifesto of the principal member of the opposition offers a quick view of the fairyland that West Bengal is about to transform into. During the first 200 days of assumption of power, it will present West Bengal with a ‘… basic industrial strategy …’ of creating ‘… massive employment through development of the manufacturing sector’. There will be ‘… a chain of industrial towns … across the state …’ along with ‘inter-linkages’. A ‘(t)arget creation of 300 ITIs [from the present 51] for basic skills with focus on SME’s worker requirement’ has found a place in the first 200 days’ agenda too. Moreover, ‘17 clusters will be selected to be converted into world class centres of excellence with focus on cooperation between enterprises and promoting economies of scale.’ The Government will ‘…benchmark Kolkata with the best cities in the world’. (May God save the pavement-hawkers!) The list is literally endless and, given the 200 days’ deadline, it raises visions of an Aladdin in the making, or at least of the wonderful lamp that won him the princess!
One does not know yet if the coalition partners of the presumed government-to-be will be anything more than strange bed fellows. However, it is not hard to form an opinion about the assortment comprising the big brother or sister of the coalition. It is a collection of individuals sharing one and only one cause between themselves, viz. a total demolition of the left. Apart from this, it is a motley crowd, totally shorn of a macro or a social character. As in the case of society, which is not merely a gathering of people, a group of highly competent professionals cannot constitute a political identity if the solitary adhesive that holds it in place is a common hatred of the enemy. Such diverse assemblages work perhaps when a country goes to war, but once the war is over, they are normally not expected to deliver peace time governance. A government in power must necessarily be characterized by a macro personality, a common vision of the future, a jointly held belief. It should not be confused with a joint stock company, each department of which is being supervised by an able ‘professional’. Once we view the matter from this point of view, one suspects that this political formation is characterized by a ‘poverty of philosophy’ as opposed to the ‘philosophy of poverty’ of the Left.
It was the poverty of a common philosophy that dislodged three consecutive governments between 1967 and 1972. The Left came to power in 1977 and continued to rule for 34 years because it succeeded in forging a common world view, rightly or wrongly. Unfortunately, however, it is now entrenched in internal contradictions itself and has little more than its ‘philosophy of poverty’ to offer.
West Bengal is caught between the devil and the deep blue sea and the election results will hardly symbolize the end of its tragedy.
[A slightly revised version of the article appeared in The Telegraph, Calcutta on April 21, 2001]