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Basu-led Left Front's labour story

Last updated on: January 23, 2010 09:42 IST

It is worth wondering how far the fulsome national coverage Jyoti Basu received this week was warranted, except on the basis of his record as India's longest-serving chief minister, says Kanika Datta.

All the usual suspects offered the press diplomatic condolences on his death -- national political leaders, trade unionists, opposition leaders, his Marxist comrades et al. No one, however, thought to ask ordinary workers their opinion.

This may well have been a futile exercise, since he would scarcely have been a hero to the people whose interests he ostensibly championed for more than half a century of political life.

Looking back on his chief minister-ship of almost two and half decades and influence on the national Left movement, this should not be a surprise. The Left Front's labour record is hardly a good advertisement, though not necessarily for the reasons that most industrialists and the media ascribe.

Through the sixties and seventies, Bengal became best known as the locus for labour violence -- first through the Naxalites (with whom Basu has little truck) and then through the lumpenisation of labour unions once his government came to power.

The gheraos, hartals  and bandhs that made West Bengal (in)famous, also famously led to the flight of capital from the state. But that is only part of the Basu-led Left Front's labour story.

The point is that many businessmen did stay back and managed to build large-ish empires. Many of them had (and still have) close links with a range of leftist comrades, and Basu was no exception. In an interview some years ago, he chose to describe the relationship thus: "We adopted an economic policy in which we interacted with industrialists. We told them that it is because of the workers that they are making profits. We told them not to look down on the workers…"

More than three decades on, it is clear that this "interaction" did little to create a workers' paradise of any description. Industrial towns of Durgapur, Howrah, Kalyani and Metia Bruz remain monuments to the appalling conditions in which Bengal's labour force works, surely an ironic contradiction for a man who cut his political teeth on trade unionism.

The large units owned by some of the doyens of Bengal industry were no different -- incredibly, a McKinsey study criticised one of the state's largest investors for not providing toilet and drinking water facilities for its workers. Indeed, the evidence suggests that Basu's tenure fostered crony capitalism of the worst kind.

In truth, the condition of workers in Bengal was no different from their counterparts elsewhere in India. The minuscule proportion of workers in Bengal's organised sector -- mainly public sector units -- remains a pampered minority. But for the vast majority of workers in the unorganised sector, working conditions were dire and brutal.

To date, like their comrades elsewhere in India, unorganised workers in Bengal have no state safety net, non-existent health or retirement benefits. Small wonder, then, that most cling continue to cling to the security of the land the Left's impressive land reforms gave them and strongly oppose requisitions for industrial projects -- as the Nandigram and Singur debacles showed.

Back in the seventies and eighties, this constituency of perpetually discontented labour became useful material for aspiring trade union members to build their political base (just as disaffected land-losers have become Mamata's Banerjee's vote bank). Whatever the public perception, these leaders developed power bases quite independent of Basu's influence.

Tragically, this cynically confrontationist policy vitiated the work culture in a state that could boast of a large, educated workforce, and ultimately brought little benefit to the people at whom it was targeted.

The vicious circle of unemployment and low productivity was complete. By the mid-nineties, the state enjoyed the felicity of being a power-surplus state, not because it was producing more electricity but because demand had dropped. And Bengal maintained a steady high ranking in unemployment and low productivity among states.

Given all this, it was no surprise that Basu's attempts to resuscitate Bengal's economy in the mid-nineties by pulling in foreign direct investment (FDI) proved a signal failure.

In annual overseas trips, Basu sought to assure potential investors that the unions were well under his control. Yet it was the unions -- admittedly not the Left-controlled ones, but in Bengal the difference is marginal -- that stymied the first test case for FDI in Bengal, the Accor group's proposal to acquire the moribund state-owned Great Eastern Hotel.

The unfortunate result is that Basu's successor, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, is now be pilloried for trying to do the right things but possibly the wrong way -- as much as Basu has been praised for doing the wrong things, the wrong way.

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