Mother Teresa's Calcutta, India's Kolkata

May 13, 2009
*Special to asia!

It is best known to outsiders as Calcutta where the famed nun Mother Teresa set up her Missionaries of Charity to serve the dying in the city in 1950. Since then, the city has been renamed Kolkata and is witnessing a transformation in its political landscape. The state of West Bengal where it is located has been a traditional stronghold of India's Communist Party. That now may change, as the party and the state find themselves at the crossroads of tradition and progress.

As India Votes 2009

Illustration: Vikash Sharma

Kolkata or (the state of) West Bengal is the stronghold of India's Communist Party and there are a few main states in India which are run by the Communists. There is Kerala and there is West Bengal. The communists came into power about 30 years ago in the 70s, mainly on the basis of land reform. They told farmers, “We will give the land back to you,” and farmers have always been their support base. They felt empowered by having one of these communists in power. The problem this time round though is that the sheen was fading and the gloss was coming off the Communist Party.

Since 2000, the Indian Communists have wanted to copy China's communists in the sense of building Special Economic Zones and attracting investment. West Bengal used to be in the 1970s, the centre of trade and industry, and Kolkata was the Mumbai of India before Mumbai became the Mumbai of India. Because of union troubles and labour disputes, the city just fell into disrepair.

Young people who were growing up didn't have the opportunities that their counterparts in Delhi or Mumbai did. While farmers may have felt looked-after, the middle classes that were growing quite rapidly were feeling rather neglected and the Communist government was under pressure to do something to cater to them. While the rest of India was growing - West Bengal traditionally one of the most intellectual places in India and Kolkata is home to one of the most well-known, poets and artists and writers in Indian history – I think people there were starting to feel they haven't made the most of the opportunities that were available.

In the year 2000, the communists in India finally said, “We were going to move forward in progress,” and in fact, I remember when I was in Singapore, the chief minister of West Bengal, came out to Singapore to appeal to investors. All of this was going on at a time when in the central government, the Communists were telling the people in power that they could not just allow foreign multinational companies come in (to India), and they had to protect local jobs etc. So there was a conflict within the thinking of the Communist party. And that has played itself out in two violent scenes last year in West Bengal in terms of Special Economic Zones.

The Communists wanted to build factories in two parts of West Bengal but they handled the land acquisition from the farmers quite badly. This election, there was a great deal of resentment from the farmers in West Bengal. I think we will see that reflected in the numbers on Saturday. A lot of the people we spoke to in the rural areas were really upset in the way that the Communists took land and pushed for progress and betrayed their promise to the farmers that they were looking out for them, because they were taking up their land that these farmers had in order to build these factories.

Kerala is a different story because they didn't try to modernise as much as West Bengal. The situation in West Bengal is that because the land is quite fertile, they had the opportunities and companies were coming to them. This was where they ran into trouble.

The most famous example is the factory of Nano the world's cheapest car, where last year, India's Tata Group decided to go into West Bengal to open the factory of the world's cheapest car and this is where the Nano will be launched from.

They were all set to do this in Singur. The government acquired the land from the farmers and then sold the land to the Tatas. The main opposition party there which is the Congress, turned around and said that the farmers did not want to send the land and that it was illegal, and they protested and there were marches and violent clashes and in the end, the Tatas pulled out and they were to Gujarat instead. It was a huge blow to the state.

We were out in Singur on the day of voting and it was such a divided society. There were people who owned the land and were wondering ,”Why do you (the government) want to take our fertile land, and turn it into factory land? Take land that you cannot use. Don't take land that we can grow something on.”

You have to remember that land is a really emotional issue for the Indian farmer. It is all that he has, it has been passed down to him from generation to generation, it provides him food, it provides him employment, it is something he can loan off when he has a daughter to marry, it is everything to him. It is not something where you can - just with some money – take it. People were really upset.

I think that was what the Communists failed to understand. They modernised some parts far too quickly and people that voted them into power had not caught up with them yet. Their thinking had not caught up with them yet.

On the other side, you have got young people who in the same district in Singur who were pushing for development, who believed that when the Nano factory came to Singur, complementary jobs would crop up, like cafes, or some housing development for the people who worked on the factory. They wanted that kind of development in their area.

Singur is a really good example of just how divided West Bengal society really is, because on one hand, you have Indian farmers who represent about 60 percent of the population and on the other hand, you have got this young ambitious middle class who want to push ahead for progress. I think Singur is a really good reflection of how divided Indian society really is. These are the kinds of themes that we were seeing on our journey across India.


Next in the series: Villages devoid of young men in modern India

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karishma vaswani

Karishma Vaswani presents India Business Report for BBC World News. The Mumbai-based correspondent has interviewed numerous political and business leaders in the region. Karishma's family hails from Sindh and she was educated at Warwick University in England where she read English and American Literature. Karishma will be travelling with the BBC India Election train for the entire journey across Northern India.