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|June 4, 2001||
T V R Shenoy
The war of the CMs
I was amused -- and just a bit sad -- to hear what the two chief ministers said in the wake of the recent assembly election. Both A K Antony and Buddhadeb Bhattacharya proclaimed that in a few years their states would be "the IT capital of India".
I am happy both men finally admit that state-sponsored socialism is an economic fantasy. (Or, to be precise, an economic nightmare!) But I am afraid that wisdom is dawning a little late.
I also believe Buddhadeb Bhattacharya has a better chance of succeeding than A K Antony. Why? Well, there are three reasons.
First, the chief minister of West Bengal is taking pains to dramatise his interest in encouraging industrial development. He went so far as to invite a delegation from the Confederation of Indian Industries to meet him. Driving home the message that the old era was over, the meeting was held not in the chief minister's office, but in the Alimuddin Street headquarters of the CPI-M.
Such meetings will, of course, not be particularly fruitful by themselves. But it tells potential investors that the chief minister is serious about encouraging development. A K Antony, I know, operates on a low key, but a few gestures won't do Kerala any harm.
Second, Bhattacharya will have fewer foes to contend with (at least in the near future.) The old dinosaurs in the Left Front will keep quiet, gagged by party discipline. They will undoubtedly chafe at seeing their chief minister speak the language of economic reform, but they probably won't actually do anything.
Antony will not be so lucky. The Marxists are resentful about losing power. Once they get over the immediate shock of the hammering they received -- and it is only a matter of time before the inevitable revival -- they will be out to embarrass the United Democratic Front government.
The Communists believe their strength lies in the smokestack industries, and they have a history of opposing computerisation. You cannot do that and still encourage an environment where infotech thrives. Trust me: it will be a very long time before a CII delegation is invited to A K Gopalan Bhawan!
Third, and most important in my eyes, have you considered the neighbourhood of the two states? They could not be more striking -- nor more suited to West Bengal.
Look at the map, and tell me if you can see any sign of economic development once you move out of Delhi and its immediate environs. You have Uttaranchal, Bihar, Assam, the smaller states in the Northeast, Orissa, Sikkim...
I mean no disrespect to any of these states, yet these are not places that spring to mind when an investor is looking for a place to park his funds. (To be fair, Orissa's governments have taken some bold steps at reform, but their efforts have been dwarfed by natural calamities.) West Bengal really is the pick of the litter.
That is not saying much. The Left Front regime in Kolkata has plenty of work to do if it is serious about clearing the muck of the past. But it can at least be sure that it will not be outshone by its neighbours. Can Kerala say the same?
Alas, Kerala is singularly unfortunate in this respect. It is surrounded by the most dynamic economies in India -- Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. These are three states that have earned a reputation for taking liberalisation seriously.
S M Krishna, the Congress chief minister of Karnataka, is a very polite person. But he is brutally frank when he points out that Mangalore outdoes all of Kerala when it comes to investment in the sunshine sector -- new technology. That is Mangalore, not Bangalore!
In fact, Karnataka has already started moving on from a dependence on infotech alone. The Karnataka chief minister is now engaged in a race with his Andhra Pradesh counterpart to take the lead in biotechnology too.
It should be an interesting race to watch. I had the privilege of meeting the chief minister in Hyderabad, and Chandrababu Naidu told me he relishes the challenge of taking on his neighbours. And it is well-known that the Telugu Desam chief is also one of the savviest e-administrators in India.
How about Tamil Nadu? Well, Chennai has not received the publicity that Bangalore and Hyderabad have, but the authorities have been quietly going about their job. Whether it is Karunanidhi or Jayalalitha, industry has been returning to the state. Some industrialists say Chennai is fast regaining its crown as 'the Detroit of India'. And that does not mean Tamil Nadu is ignoring the new economy either.
Kerala, I am afraid, suffers by comparison against this glittering backdrop. The state's high literacy rate should have given it an edge in the computer sector. Sadly, this early advantage has been thrown away, one might even say that it has been nullified, by carelessness coupled with an atrocious work ethic.
Quite honestly, I am not sure if even Kerala's educational institutions are up to par any longer. I am appalled when I see its schools and colleges. Examinations are held well behind schedule. (Joining universities outside the state is a problem because of the delay in getting mark-sheets.) Curriculum reform is on nobody's agenda. I am not qualified to speak on the quality of Kerala's engineering colleges, I merely pray that they are better than those teaching humanities!
Both Antony and Bhattacharya were, I think, talking through their hat when they said they would make their respective states the infotech capital of India. But Antony has a longer, rougher road to travel -- if he is serious about doing so!
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