Economist Ashok Lahiri wants to reconnect with his roots in battle for Bengal

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By Jayanta Roy Chowdhury Kolkata, Mar 23 (PTI) Well-known economist Ashok Lahiri, who has been fielded by the BJP as its candidate for the Balurghat assembly constituency in North Bengal's Dakshin Dinajpur district, wants to reconnect with his roots by plunging into electoral politics.

The academic-turned-politician, who hails from north Bengal and was a member of the 15th Finance Commission till recently, says he thought long and hard before taking the electoral plunge.

'I had left West Bengal in 1971 (when the Naxal movement was at its peak in the state) as the situation here was not conducive for studies, but I was always mentally present in Bengal... I always had the feeling that I needed to get back to my roots and do some work here,' the BJP nominee said in an interview to PTI.

Lahiri, a well-known economist, had earlier served as chief economic advisor in the Ministry of Finance, as chairman of Bandhan Bank, executive director of ADB, besides working with the World Bank and IMF. Interestingly, he was appointed CEA by the Government of India in 2002 during the prime ministership of Atal Behari Vajpayee, and continued even when Dr Manmohan Singh took the reins of the country.

Many in the BJP see him as a potential finance minister of the state if the party rides to power, while others speculate that his Bengal stint is a precursor to higher positions at the Centre.

Lahiri, who was earlier named BJP candidate from Alipurduar, had to be replaced by a local veteran after his candidature led to a revolt by workers of the saffron camp who accused the party high command of 'parachuting a leader on to a safe seat'.

The soft-spoken academic, an alumnus of the Presidency college, however took on the Trinamool Congress slogan 'Khela Hobe' (Game will happen) and said, 'I do not believe in playing games with people. I feel we need to work for the people here... These are dignified people who want to regain their place of honour.' The BJP has been focusing on Bengal's grievance that it has lost its place in the sun, when it was the premier industrial state of the country in the 1950s and early 1960s, besides being a leader in education and healthcare.

'I want to focus on three areas in the state - education, health and infrastructure. We need to raise the educational levels in the state, work in healthcare for schemes such as those seeking correct incidence of anemia among expectant mothers,' Lahiri said.

'It takes about 18 hours to travel from Kolkata to Siliguri, while the same distance takes about 10 hours in many other places in the country... there is a need to bridge the infrastructure gap,' the economist said.

Land acquisition issues have slowed the work of widening the vital National Highway-34 into a four-lane expressway, which connects the port city of Kolkata with Siliguri, the gateway to India's North East.

His close associates say Lahiri, who is in his late 60s, has agreed to be fielded by the BJP as he felt he should be involved in working for Bengal's rejuvenation.

Lahiri's ex-colleague and fellow economist Dr Pronab Sen, former chief statistician of India, however, said, 'I am surprised he took the plunge... I always thought he was a dyed-in-the-wool academic like me.' In a much-debated article titled 'West Bengal from an external perspective', Lahiri had a few years ago drawn a pen picture of the state's economy, pointing out that the once prosperous, industrialized state is now lagging behind all- India average figures in both economic and social indicators.

He had ominously pointed out 'the situation is gloomy in both social and physical infrastructure'. PTI JRC RMS RMS