Time to switch tracks PDF Print E-mail
Thursday, 12 May 2011 00:00
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A regime change after three decades, and so convincingly if the exit polls have got it right, is no small achievement. But with the burden of hope Mamata Banerjee carries, the soon-to-be-former Railway minister has to cut the celebrations short, and will find Writers Building quite different from her previous stint even though, at R106,000 crore, the Railways budget is a fourth more than West Bengal’s. Apart from the fact that Indian Railways’ (IR) fortunes have plunged under Mamata, she inherited a healthy IR—besides, it has enough of a steel frame and one in reasonable shape. The one lesson Lalu taught us is that IR does better when the minister is hands off.

The West Bengal Mamata inherits tomorrow is bust, and it can’t run on auto-pilot. Three decades of Left rule have transformed India’s second-most industrial state to a largely agrarian one. A debt of over R2 lakh crore means the R17,500 crore of annual interest outgo eats up a fifth of the state’s budget. Mamata’s strategy as IR minister, getting Pranabda to permit her to not pay the Centre its dues, or not provide for pensions,is not an option here, nor is a debt writeoff for India’s basket-case state. Kolkata, to use the most visible sign of Bengal’s progress, was the first city with a metro, but it has yet to take off nearly three decades later. The West Bengal SEB, to cite another example, is one of the few that makes money as FE’s front-page story points out—but Kolkata had the longest spells of power cuts last summer as the state doesn’t have the money to buy power to supply it at subsidised rates.

Putting back Bengal, piece by piece, will take time and if Nitish’s Bihar is anything to go by, the electorate will likely give her the time she needs. Like Nitish, she needs visible low-hanging fruit—law and order, getting doctors to man clinics, teachers to teach, bicycles for girls—to keep the masses going, but the fact that most such services are manned by Left supporters and party cadre will make the going tough. Having an industry-friendly Amit Mitra is a plus, but no one invests money on the strength of a friendly face—getting industry to forget Singur will be a long haul, so Mamata’s best bet is to concentrate on governance, and it helps that her ally in the UPA has a huge social sector programme. Putting all of this together needs a new anti-agitational Mamata, one that understands there is no free lunch—how do you run state bus corporations with so many workers, how can you have new roads without tolls, how do you get industry or even roads if the state doesn’t acquire land for them … Mamata and her merry men have a lot of learning ahead. Before that, they have a lot of unlearning.

Last Updated ( Thursday, 22 March 2012 06:26 )

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