Khardah (West Bengal), April 22 (IANS) Attired in his trademark kurta-dhoti, which he has adopted as the dress of choice for five years now, giving up the black suits he once sported while in the corporate world, this high-profile candidate arrives for a scheduled meeting at a factory here.
But in keeping with his business-like punctuality, West Bengal Finance Minister Amit Mitra is on time with other speakers to urge the workers to vote for him. But the programme is delayed. Workers wait for their shift to end, before walking out of the gates of the Electrosteel unit to attend Mitra’s meeting.
“This is the work culture we’ve brought,” says Mitra, Trinamool Congress nominee from the Khardah assembly constituency, pointing towards how workers’ attitudes have changed from indifference when the Left Front was at the helm to involvement now, after his party came to power.
All this, he says beaming, has come while ensuring workers get their due. The wage hikes have come about without the loss of a single man-day. “Workers have realised that agitations only hamper production. So no strikes. Contract workers used to get Rs.112 a day in 2009. Today they get Rs.312,” Mitra tells IANS in an interview.
From being the former secretary-general of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), Mitra’s transformation to a heavyweight politician-administrator over the past five years has been smooth — even earning the confidence of his mercurial leader Mamata Banerjee.
Starting as the finance and excise minister in Banerjee’s cabinet, the son of late legislator Haridas Mitra has seen several plum ministries and departments added to his portfolio — commerce and industry, public enterprise, industrial reconstruction, IT and electronics.
The face of West Bengal at business events, Mitra pulled off a mega upset in his debut poll battle five years ago by defeating then finance minister and noted economist Asim Dasgupta of Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) with a 26,000-plus margin.
He appears confident of an encore as the constituency goes to vote again on April 25. It has over 202,000 electors, many of whom are migrants from Bihar and Odisha, with a large Muslim population.
Khardah had never elected a Congress party or Trinamool Congress candidate to the state assembly before 2011. Dasgupta was its representative for 24 years. The two economists are set to cross swords again with three other candidates, including from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The field has become tougher for Mitra with the Left Front being backed by a new ally, the Congress.
In his election meetings, Dasgupta has been dwelling at length on Mitra’s “inability” to bring big ticket investments, the closure of factories, and also his rival party’s hands-off policy towards land acquisition — which was a hot issue when the Trinamool came to power.
Mitra disagrees. Some 55,000 factories were shut during the 34-year Left rule; not now, he says.
“As regards investments, let me tell you that in the 2015 Global Business Summit, proposals worth Rs.245,000 crore were committed. And out of that, Rs.93,000 crore has already come in. The rest will follow. In the 2016 edition, we saw Rs.250,000 crore worth of investment proposals.”
He also says 5,500 acres are available in the state’s industrial parks with proper infrastructure and 100,000 acres are under different state government departments. “As demand for land rises, we are converting them under different government departments into industrial lands,” he says.
The Trinamool regime has also had a fair share of controversies. But Mitra rules out any impact on the elections, either from the Saradha chit fund scam, or the Narada sting videos that allegedly showed some Trinamool leaders taking money illegally.
He shifts to speaking about his constituency. Despite the sweltering heat and humidity in a 42 degrees Celsius weather, Mitra has been traversing the length and breadth of this suburban area, that comprises four gram panchayats, two municipal towns and a part of the Panihati town.
“We have spent Rs.100 crore for the development of Khardah. My predecessor represented Khardah for 24 years. But he did nothing,” the 68-year-old Mitra tells IANS while on his way to Bilkanda-II gram panchayat for a meeting.
The residents with whom IANS spoke had a mixed reaction to what Mitra has done. They said some development has taken place but there was a job drought. “We have good roads, drinking water but no jobs. Hosiery factories don’t employ us,” said a resident, requesting anonymity.
At the macro level, there is also concern over the high government debt the Trinamool government has accumulated, with outstanding liabilities growing to Rs.300,000 crore now from Rs.200,000 crore when the Left Front was voted out.
“Yes, we borrowed Rs.113,000 crore in the last five years. But out of that, Rs.94,000 crore was drained out to repay the principal and interest of inherited loans. We borrowed about Rs.20,000 crore for development in the last five years,” Mitra says.
“Higher state gross domestic product and fiscal discipline have helped West Bengal provide more funds for development,” the soft-spoken economist said, referring to the $132.86-billion economy the state became in 2014-15 — the 6th largest in the country — growing at 11 percent annually.
(Bappaditya Chatterjee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)