March 13, 2002


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T V R Shenoy

Two CMs making a difference

Some say journalists are myopic -- the immediate past and future loom so large that all else is reduced to seeming insignificance. That is quite true just now, as we stand between the flames of Godhra and whatever might happen in Ayodhya come the Ides of March. But let us try to look beyond these dramas -- to two chief ministers who have been going about their work without too much publicity.

I am not referring to anyone from the Bharatiya Janata Party. This past fortnight -- from February 24 to March 10 -- has been a dreadful one for the party's chief ministers. First, Rajnath Singh saw his government demolished at the hustings. Hard on the heels of this debacle, Narendra Modi had to cope with Godhra.

Although the knives are already out for scapegoats, Rajnath Singh came too late to Uttar Pradesh to make a difference; Kalyan Singh's jumbo ministry and the perceived sloth of the Ram Prakash Gupta regime had taken their toll. And in emotionally charged Gujarat, any chief minister would have found it hard to control the rage.

But both men might think it is adding insult to injury when they see their leaders in Delhi smiling benevolently on two other chief ministers -- especially since the duo belong to the Opposition. The truth is that the Union home minister and his colleague in the Union ministry of finance think a lot of A K Antony in Kerala and of Buddhadeb Bhattacharya in West Bengal.

As it happens, the two men return the compliment, knowing that they have less to fear from the ministers in Delhi than from their own senior colleagues. Jyoti Basu is a far greater embarrassment for Buddhadeb Bhattacharya than the Trinamul Congress and the BJP put together. And the shadow boxing between Karunakaran and Antony is already the stuff of legend in Kerala.

Both Antony and Bhattacharya face the same problem -- they are trying to educate their parties about the realities of power as opposed to the cosy certainties of ideologies. West Bengal has been a bastion of the Left Front since 1977. While Kerala has traditionally seesawed between the Left and the Congress, there has never been any serious ideological discrepancy between the two fronts. And thus it was that two of the most literate states in India have been driven to the brink of economic ruin.

According to one amazing statistic that someone told me, fully 11 per cent of all 'public servants' are employed by Kerala. I have not been able to verify this number independently, but I do not have any reason not to believe it. Nurses and doctors, school and college teachers, the inevitable army of peons -- is there any institution in Kerala that has not been burdened?

Let me put this statistic into perspective. Kerala elects 20 members of Parliament to the Lok Sabha. If this were to be proportionate to the number of public servants, it would be sending 59 representatives to Delhi!

This stupidity has driven Kerala to bankruptcy. Three weeks ago, the Reserve Bank was on the verge of closing the treasury and only an eleventh hour grant from the Union government saved the day. That money did not come because the BJP has any love lost for a Congress chief minister; it is because Delhi sees that a chief minister of Kerala is finally taking steps to rein in the arrogance of the greedy public servants. (Who, it is clear, do everything but serve the public!)

Kerala, which was once India's laboratory in the battle against illiteracy, is again at the forefront. While economic reforms began in 1991, no ministry has found the guts to curb the Malthusian growth of the bureaucracy. Antony is the first man to have threatened to take the knife to the fat, cutting away the perquisites of the bureaucrats.

To his credit, the chief minister stuck to his guns when the trade unions struck work. After a month of idleness -- and amid rising public anger -- the militants who threatened to bring Kerala to a halt have begun to cave in. If a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, A K Antony has taken that first hesitant step.

His counterpart in West Bengal has been less successful in taking the battle to his senior party colleague. Reform -- whether economic or administrative -- is no more popular in Kolkata than in Thiruvananthapuram. Buddhadeb Bhattacharya's problem is that he has been less successful in articulating the problems than has Antony. And, of course, Jyoti Basu has greater clout in the CPI-M than does Karunakaran in the Congress. While Murali, the son of the Kerala patriarch and head of the state's Congress unit, backed his chief minister, Jyoti Basu's clan is something of an embarrassment for the chief minister of West Bengal.

Yet that is the least of Bhattacharya's problems. The chief minister has the wits to see that the old ways are not good enough any longer. He wants to curb illegal migration and to bring the madarsas within the purview of the state. But these policies -- ones which General Musharraf has vowed to enforce -- are unpalatable to the aged Marxist dinosaurs. And economic reform is, of course, anathema to a group that continues to swear by Marx when even China and Russia have tossed Marxist textbooks into the dustbin of history. (The CPI-M conclave rebuffed its own chief minister a fortnight ago.)

But the Union home ministry gives Buddhadeb Bhattacharya high marks for at least trying, as does the Union finance ministry to A K Antony. Ayodhya is not a major problem, I suspect, to most Indians. But a callous and arrogant bureaucracy is a cancer that affects every Indian. Here, at last, are two men who are trying to make a difference. Whatever happens in Ayodhya on Friday, let us hope that Bhattacharya and Antony continue their good work in the years to come.

T V R Shenoy

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