Kolkata's decline began when the Naxals raised the red flag in rural West Bengal. 34 years of Communist party rule hollowed out the commercial status of the city. For any one born in the last 3 decades, it is difficult to conceive that Kolkata was once a major hub of Indian business activity, second only to Mumbai. Since then, it has been eclipsed, not just by Delhi, Chennai and Hyderabad, but by erstwhile retirement towns like Bangalore and Pune, and cities that didn't exist then - Gurgaon and the bureaucratic acronym, NOIDA.
I find it fitting that the death-knell for the communist party was rung over the issue of property; the deeply human need to own ran counter to party ideology; the right to expropriate came naturally to those in power, and the clashes in Singur and Nandigram exposed the untenability of a party that spoke of land reform but practiced land grab. George Orwell had it right.
On our south-western coast, the Kerala reds surprised poll pundits by their resilience, losing their rule by a slender margin. Slim though the win was, it stuck to the 'knit-purl, knit-purl' pattern of UDF-LDF. Will history repeat itself in the next electoral cycle?
It depends on the Gulf.
The Kerala Migration Study (KMS, 1999) concluded that "Migration has provided the single most dynamic factor in the otherwise dismal scenario of Kerala in the last quarter of the twentieth century." Though communist party ideologues would have us believe that the state's socio-economic indicators prove the superiority of Kerala's leftist bias, the reality of its economic survival lies in that old fallback of impoverished economies - remittances.
A close aide of the out-going Kerala Finance Minister spoke to me of his aversion to industrial activity in the state, "Industrialists are exploitative. We cannot allow Keralite labour to be exploited". In response, they have shipped themselves abroad, to be exploited by builders and traders in the Gulf states!
Remittances into Kerala are a potent financial force and are equivalent to 25% of the state's domestic product. They dwarf the government's expenditure by a factor of 2, prompting the Center of Development Studies (CDS) to say - "Migration must have contributed more to poverty alleviation than any other factor including agrarian reforms, trade union activities and social welfare legislation."
Today Kerala's per capita income places it 9th among the Indian states. Knock off the remittances and it would drop to No 15 alongside West Bengal. Not that the remittances are going to stop overnight - the Gulf needs cheap blue and white collar labour as much as Kerala needs the money.
However the gains to the economy from Kerala remittances do not go much beyond the cash transfers. Our diasporas in the Silicon Valley and Wall Street have played a huge role in bringing the world's largest and most innovative companies into India with the attendant benefits of transferring modern management skills and technology into the Indian landscape. The Kerala political landscape however is not receptive to such transfers and the information technology graduates produced by the state look to Karnataka, Andhra or Maharashtra for jobs.
At the same time, the social cost of Kerala's migrant economy is high with over 30 emigrants per 100 households. It can be no accident that the state with the highest proportion of migrant labour also has the highest suicide rate of any major Indian state = two and a half times the national average. Tellingly, 40% of these elevated suicides are attributed to family problems against the national average of 24%.
Mamata Banerjee's early promises to the state are that she will now rule focus on jobs and economic progress. As a successful political entrepreneur, she has an ear for what is uppermost in people's minds. The UDF combine that has now assumed power in Kerala would do well to take a cue from her and facilitate employability and job creation. If they can make progress on this score, it will create a platform for a state economy that does not need to look at the Gulf to maintain itself.
This could disrupt the knit-purl knit-purl pattern of Kerala polls. More importantly, it will leverage the dynamism and intellect of the people of Kerala into building a productive society for themselves rather than erecting skyscrapers on the desert sands of the Gulf.
Mohit Satyanand is an entrepreneur and portfolio investor.