In Bengal, the illusion of ‘Asol Paroborton’ but all that changes are people in power
While political parties promise radical changes before every election, not many people take them at face value. The only change they see is in the people in power and their ‘colour’
The staleness of rhetoric and emptiness of unfulfilled promises made routinely before elections are nothing new with the Indian voters, especially in a politically conscious and polarised state like West Bengal. The long, Left Front rule had taken the state to the brink when voters changed the regime in the hope of poriborton, or change.
Some positive changes did take place, in terms of improving the quality of physical and social infrastructure besides launching a few innovative and transformational schemes which created an impact, but the new regime hardly proved any different from its predecessor in substance. The same cadres just switched sides and constituted the new syndicate.
Trains that every year took away talents of Bengal and emptied them in the educational hubs of Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Chennai each year never quite slowed during the last 10 years. The ‘party state’ that the Left had made of West Bengal never changed its character, it only changed its colour. It is impossible to predict if it is again poised to change colour.
But challenged like never before, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is fighting the battle of her life. During her last two terms in the saddle, promise of any real ‘poriborton’ had remained nothing more than a platitude. But there might be a thin sliver of a chance – one hopes - that if indeed she manages to score an electoral victory as hard-fought as in 2011, she would be a little more serious about bringing in real poriborton, if only to prevent the Bhagwa jhanda from striking a deeper root at the politics of West Bengal.
Julien Benda, the French novelist, had said in 1927, “Our age is the age of nationalisation of intellect in political hatreds.” Nearly a century later, this political hatred is showing up in the land of Bhadraloks and intellectuals. “When politics meets religion, the outcome is inquisition”, Albert Camus had said. Politics, sadly, is meeting religion in every nook and corner of the state which has by and large maintained its reputation of being free from communal violence so far.
Political fortunes in our country are never decided on the basis of economic performance of the outgoing government. Data and objective analysis remain farthest from the minds of voters, but such analysis is necessary to assess performance sans the rhetoric.
While releasing the TMC manifesto built around “Didi’s Ten Promises”, she declared, “I present my 10 ‘Ongikars’ (promises or undertakings)…the aim is just one, to sustain Bengal as one of the leading states in the country.”But is Bengal a leading state among India? What precisely has been her contribution during the last 10 years to make West Bengal a leading state is worth examining.
In 2010-11, respective shares of the primary, secondary and tertiary sectors in the state’s economy stood at 18, 20 and 62 percent; in 2019-20, they were 21 percent, 20 percent, and 59 percent respectively. This was hardly the kind of structural transformation towards greater industrialization; if at all, while industrial sectors stagnated, the share of agriculture has increased at the cost of services – not a welcome sign either.
In 2019-20, West Bengal was the 6th largest economy among all Indian states, after Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, UP, Gujarat and Karnataka; it was so in 2011. In per capita income, with Rs 1.15 lakh annual per capita income in 2019-20, it ranked a poor 18th among the Indian states, behind Nagaland and Tripura. In 2011-12, it was ranked 20th, again behind Nagaland (all figures in current prices). If that is construed as progress, no further comments are warranted.
From the Left Front Government, her regime had inherited empty coffers with huge liabilities, with interest payments exceeding Rs 40000 crore a year. In 2010-11 alone, the state had to approach the RBI on 38 occasions for special Ways and Means Advances (WMA) to help it tide over repeated financial crunch. At the end of 2010-11 when the TMC government assumed power, the total outstanding liabilities of the state was 37 percent of the state income and the annual interest burden alone on this huge outstanding debt consumed 67 percent of the state’s total revenues from its own resources and 23 percent of its total revenue expenditure.
In 2010-11, a meagre 11 percent of the total borrowed funds of Rs 44174 crore could be utilized for creating productive capital assets. The Gross Fiscal Deficit (GFD) – the gap between revenue and expenditure - was a whooping Rs 19534 crore, 4.25 percent of the GSDP in 2010-11.
Unfortunately, we don’t have the Finance Accounts beyond 2017-18; the CAG who is entrusted with preparation of the state’s account has not been able to bring out the Finance Accounts and his audit reports after that for reasons not known – which indeed is a cause of serious concern as they would have provided credible input to voters if they cared for data. The CAG has legitimately been criticized for this unprecedented delay that cannot be explained away only on account of the pandemic, which to the credit of Ms. Banerjee’s government, has not been allowed to get out hand like in Maharashtra.
The only document available for analysis on the basis of current data is the RBI report on “State Finances: A Study of Budgets”. The budgeted figures often lack the credibility and reliability of CAG’s accounts, but still they give some insights. In this following analysis, only the current prices have been used as Government accounts are maintained in current prices.
The state maintained its fiscal deficit within the FRBMA limit of 3 percent in 19-20 (2.72 percent) as against 3.07 percent in 2018-19. 41 percent of its revenue came from its own tax and non-tax sources, 37 percent from its share of Central taxes and 21 percent from Central grants. In 2010-11, these shares respectively stood at 50, 34 and 16 percent, indicating some erosion of the state’s self-dependence over the last 10 years.
But while 85 percent of the revenue expenditure in 2010-11 were non-developmental, mostly used to pay the huge army of government servants, in 2020- 21 BE, the state projected to spend only 38 percent of its revenue expenditure on non-developmental general services.
This was a huge and welcome change and the government and Finance Minister must be given credit for controlling unproductive expenditure with consequent improvement in the State’s physical assets – the asset quality has indeed improved, as a visit to the rural areas makes apparent.
This is not to say that the present government was not indulging in populism – indeed Ms. Banerjee’s tenures have seen a surfeit of it. All the ills of the earlier Left rule – be it political violence, intolerance of the mildest forms of dissent and criticism, politicization of academic campuses, crony capitalism, doling out public funds for buying votes, lawlessness – seem to have been inherited by- an inheritance that shows no sign of fading away.
One does not know if there will be a change of regime this time, and if so, whether the common man will again be lamenting:
“Ye dagh dagh ujala, ye shab-gazida sehr/Woh intezar tha jiska, ye woh sehr to nahi!”
(The author is a retired Director General from the Office of the Comptroller & Auditor General of India and an academic. Views are personal)