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Mamata Banerjee, and only she, is responsible for lack of investment in Bengal. Singur stigma is keeping potential investors at bay.

Singur continues to remain the biggest albatross around Bengal’s neck, and no matter how hard Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee may try, her role in driving the Tatas out of Singur remains uppermost in potential investors’ minds. And so, with her as chief minister, investors are wary of putting money in Bengal.

This is the stark truth about Bengal that none will spell out for fear of inviting an intemperate backlash from the mercurial and short-tempered Banerjee. But Irina Bashkirova, who just finished her tenure as Russia’s consul-general in Kolkata, broke ranks and, in an interview to a local English daily, spoke about the Singur stigma that continues to haunt Bengal.

Banerjee drove Tata Motors’ Nano car project out of Singur in October 2008 and Ratan Tata’s announcement of the pullout just before the Durga Puja that year, in which he squarely blamed the Trinamool chief, is still fresh in investors’ minds. As is Banerjee’s infamous reaction (she said Tata bye bye) to the news of the pullout. That was the kiss of death for Bengal and Banerjee has not been able to live down that anti-industry image that she aggressively cultivated to catapult her to power.

Bashkirova hit the nail on the head when she explained why she had been unable to get Russian investors interested in putting their money in Bengal. She said she had discussed the issue with diplomats of other countries stationed in Kolkata and the broad consensus was what she told the newspaper:

“Businessmen (from other countries) come here on familiarisation missions, but they don’t hurry in starting their businesses here. Maybe they don’t feel secure or confident of getting a good response. There is a background to that. It is easier to create an incident than to erase the memory of that incident. Everybody knows about Singur and other things”.

To drive home the point, she added: “People who have to set up a business here have to know the situation, not just the present but also what happened three-four years ago. Negative impressions are difficult to overcome”. What is significant is the Russian envoy saying that her fellow members of the diplomatic corps in Kolkata feel the same. So it is not just potential investors from Russia who give Bengal the wide berth, investors from other countries also remember Singur and are wary of coming to Bengal. The same, of course, is the case with Indian and overseas Indian investors.

Thus, despite tall claims by Banerjee in recent years, Bengal has seen little investments. Only some existing units, whose promoters enjoy proximity with her, have expanded their operations. Few new investors have come in. That doesn’t, however, stop Banerjee from rolling out fantastical figures. In the Bengal Global Business Summit held in January 2015, she claimed to have signed MoUs promising investments worth Rs 2.43 lakh crore! That’s more than 26 per cent of Bengal’s GSDP in 2015-2016! In the next business jamboree that she hosted the next year, she jubilantly announced that the state had received business investment proposals worth more than Rs 2.5 lakh crore!

Economists and businessmen say that had even a quarter of the proposed investments announced by Banerjee in 2015 materialised, the industrial landscape of Bengal would have started changing drastically by now. “The state would have, by now, seen a flurry of activities associated with constructing the new industrial units (whose investment proposals Mamata claims to have received) and some of those new units would have already started production. Tens of thousands of jobs would also have been created. Instead, we hear Mamata complaining that thousands from Bengal working as masons, labourers and in menial jobs in other states have come back to Bengal after losing their jobs due to demonetisation. What an irony! And that in itself gives the lie to such tall claims,” remarked a senior professor of economics at Calcutta University, who did not want to be named for fear of inviting Banerjee’s wrath.

What the departing Russian envoy left unsaid was that Banerjee’s conduct – her mercurial nature, her tantrums, her short-temper, her intemperate outbursts against political rivals, her constant and ugly battles with the Union government, her dictatorial nature, her acute distaste for basic decencies and her intolerance of dissent or contrarian views, which all add up to her undemocratic persona and character traits – have also been an odious deterrent for investors.

Of all these, say businessmen, it is her constant war of words with the Union Government that acts as an impediment. “No businessman will want to invest in a state whose Chief Minister is always at loggerheads with the Union Government. And it is not just the present Union Government headed by Narendra Modi that she is battling with. She had also clashed with the erstwhile UPA regime in numerous occasions. There are many other states headed by non-NDA chief ministers and they have their political differences and battles with the NDA government, but they don’t make those battles personal and ugly. The perpetual discord between New Delhi and Kolkata (which existed from the time of the communist regimes in Bengal) is a big deterrent for investments,” said a senior member of Confederation of Indian Industry.

Add to all these Bengal’s famous bureaucratic sloth, its extremely poor work culture, volatile and violent politics, hooliganism, political interference, poor infrastructure and poor quality of life, and one can well understand why businesses bypass Bengal.