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Three States: One dilemma

opinionThree States: One dilemma

The relative stagnation and decline of the three states of West Bengal, Punjab and Maharashtra is a lesson for students of politics and governance.

The 2024 Lok Sabha elections are close to the finishing line. By the time you read this, just the seventh and last phase of voting will remain. And of course, we will all know whom the Indian voters have chosen this time. For a few weeks, there has been a sustained narrative in both mainstream and social media that the I.N.D.I Alliance has picked up a lot of steam and could deliver some nasty shocks to the BJP-led NDA. There is no point in adding anything to this narrative as there is nothing substantive to add. In any case, 4 June is not really that far away.

One thing that struck the authors is how shifting sands of polity and governance have manifested during the election campaign and in the manner in which the media has covered various states. The co-author has travelled the length and breadth of India during the last three months to understand what ordinary citizens feel about issues that engage and concern them; issues that go beyond voting intent. The lead author has been analysing survey data from across the country for more than three decades, apart from travelling and talking to people. Both have zeroed in on three states that need more serious research and study on how once shining stars of growth and governance can slide down the scale. The three states are West Bengal, Punjab and Maharashtra. There is nothing much in common between the three except history. These three states have a sterling record of producing social reform leaders and champions of Independence struggle. All three have an incredible heritage of art, poetry, theatre and literature. In post-Independence India, all three were leaders when it came to economic transformation that promised a path for third world India to transition into a relatively prosperous society. Yet, all three have spectacularly failed to keep that initial promise.

The relative stagnation and decline of the three states is a lesson for students of politics and governance. What are the political factors that have led to governance decay in these three states? Frankly, all states and union territories of India have governance deficits that adversely affect lives of citizens. India as a whole is beset by a colonial era bureaucracy and judiciary that continues to treat citizens as subjects rather than stakeholders. But given all that, West Bengal, Punjab and Maharashtra showed early promise of transformation. Sadly, that has turned out to be a false promise. Do we blame politicians of these states for the plight? Have voters been choosing the wrong candidates and parties to govern them? Do they even have a choice? States like Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Gujarat seem to tell a vastly different story of citizen aspirations. Even chronically poor and poorly governed states like Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Odisha are displaying more optimism about their future than these three states. What gives? And will electoral outcomes of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections make any meaningful difference?

West Bengal, with Calcutta (now Kolkata) as the capital of India till 1911 was the first to start decaying. It is also the easiest state to analyse. Till the 1960s, West Bengal matched Maharashtra when it came to industrialisation and blue-collar jobs in factories. For whatever reasons, the state was engulfed thereafter by a wave of communism. Entrepreneurs and even managers of factories and companies were singled out as class enemies. They became fair game for mobs who were ostensibly fighting for “justice for workers”. Quite a few were not just physically attacked but also killed in the name of Marx and Mao. The inevitable happened and investors realised they had to look for pastures elsewhere. The co-author remembers visits to Kolkata in the 1970s when there were hundreds of thriving factories employing tens of thousands despite the “trade union” troubles. Now, Kolkata and nearby towns are a wasteland when it comes to factories. The simplistic question to ask is: did the voters of West Bengal choose to vote for their state to transition from being one of the more prosperous ones to a basket case? These are important question even if they sound simplistic. After all, it was Nandigram and Singur that propelled Mamata Banerjee to power when the 34-year-old Marxist regime was ousted in 2011. Has Mamata Didi been any different from Jyoti Basu? How do folks of West Bengal react when there are informed that their once desperately poor neighbour Odisha now has a higher per capita income? Difficult questions and a dilemma.

The second state to display relative decline has been Punjab. Even when it was ravaged by terrorism in the 1980s, Punjab was one of the most prosperous states in the country. It is still relatively prosperous. Whenever you go in Punjab, you can see those extreme levels of poverty that are seen in heartland states is rare. Yet, a journey through Punjab is not one of optimism and hope but of a resigned sense of despair. In small towns and villages, parents mourn the curse of drug addiction that has felled the next generation. In prosperous villages, farmers admit that they have a few hectares of land only for personal consumption where they don’t use pesticides and fertilisers. They admit they are pumping so much water that Punjab might become a desert state in a few decades. They know neighbouring Haryana is far more vibrant when it comes to both agriculture and industry. Yet, they seem resigned.

One can add Maharashtra to this. Mumbai, Pune and Nashik can dazzle you with their prosperity. Even Nagpur in faraway Vidharbha region has a gleaming look that speaks of development. Besides, pockets of prosperity in places like Baramati can deceive you. But the rest of Maharashtra is in a sorry state with abysmal living standards. More worrisome, people do not display much optimism and hope about their future. For the first time, the co-author heard locals saying they are thinking of migrating to Gujarat, Telangana and Karnataka for better livelihoods.
Political parties of all shades and hues have ruled these states. One can blame communism for the decay of Bengal. But what about Punjab and Maharashtra? Even more important, will the 2024 Lok Sabha elections make any material difference in these three states?
Even the authors are not very optimistic.

Yashwant Deshmukh is Founder & Editor in Chief of CVoter Foundation and Sutanu Guru is Executive Director.

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