April 30, 2006

Indian communist poster boy pushes capitalism

By Bappa Majumdar

BERHAMPORE, India (Reuters) - In India's West Bengal state,
the world's longest-serving democratically elected communist
government has relied on peasants to win power time and time
again since 1977.

Now Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, state Chief Minister, says his
party is going to win the latest election with new supporters:
urban voters and businessmen who for years shunned the
communists believing they were anti-business and focused on
rural areas.

Through a pro-business platform that aims to propel the
eastern state into a regional business center, analysts credit
Bhattacharjee for turning around West Bengal's fortunes while
at the same time broadening the appeal of his communist party.

"Without capitalism, you cannot bring socialism in a feudal
society," Bhattacharjee, a grey-haired man, told Reuters in
Berhampore town, 210 km (130 miles) north of Kolkata, where he
was campaigning to help the left notch up its seventh straight
electoral victory in 29 years.

"The people of West Bengal have complete faith and trust in
us and we will win again," he said in a weekend interview.

Also helping the communists is a divided opposition which
includes the Congress party -- which heads the federal
coalition -- and the national opposition Bharatiya Janata

Since he took over the reins of West Bengal in 2000,
Bhattacharjee has successfully wooed foreign and domestic
capital to the densely populated eastern state, known till
recently for industrial decay and communist-backed labor


This has made Bhattacharjee, 62, a well-known Bengali
writer, the unlikely new poster boy of the powerful communists,
who shore up the Congress-led federal coalition with outside

He has cut bureaucratic red tape and persuaded communist
trade unions to reduce the number of strikes.

"In a capitalist set up like India you cannot build
socialism in one part of the country and you have to accept
this," Bhattacharjee said.

West Bengal's booming economy also reflects India's
impressive economic growth, forecast to be between 7.5 and 8
percent in the year ending March 2007.

When it came to power on huge support from impoverished
poor peasants 29 years ago, the Left Front government
successfully focused on land distribution and empowering
landless laborers and poor farmers, but ignored industrial
development and cities.

"For years, the communist party depended on rural support
but they have learned they cannot showcase rural West Bengal to
the world," Kolkata-based economist Sugato Marjit said.

"It now wants to showcase urban areas for business
development and more investment and believes this will win them

Bhattacharjee says he is doing just that.

"I have to attract more investment, therefore, it will
always be a capitalist investment and I just cannot mislead the
people," the chief minister said.

In the last five years, information technology firms have
flocked to Kolkata including IBM and Wipro Ltd, India's third
largest software services exporter.

Kolkata is witnessing a retail and building boom which has
seen new glass-covered IT campuses, shopping malls and swanky
apartment complexes springing up.

But the reformist communist says India's left must learn
from past mistakes in countries like the Soviet Union.

"The entire world is changing and we have to change and
learn from the mistakes committed by Russia and the new
experiments that have been made by China and Vietnam."