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Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 May 2006, 14:52 GMT 15:52 UK
Calcutta takes cue from China
By Humphrey Hawksley
BBC News, Calcutta

A man walks past a row of communist flags in Calcutta
Communist symbols are visible everywhere in the state
After seven consecutive election victories, the Indian state government in West Bengal is taking tips from China on how to improve people's lives.

The walls of the ruling party's headquarters in one of Calcutta's poorer districts are decorated with iconic portraits of Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Mao.

From the building where policies were once drawn up to try to turn India into a one-party state, communist leaders are devising a new plan, neither looking west towards Moscow or Wall Street, but east towards Beijing.

"Chinese government has initiated new programmes," says the West Bengal Chief Minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya.

"They say the socialist economy should also allow different types of ownership - state ownership and private ownership and foreign investment."

Capitalism v communism

While Lenin's statue presides in a central Calcutta park, skyscrapers, flyovers and consumer billboards mark the real city landscape and its aspirations.

West Bengal Chief Minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya
They are bargaining from a position of strength. We cannot compete with China
Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, West Bengal Chief Minister

It is at least a generation behind China, but the idea is to woo the growing middle-class which will, in turn, give confidence to foreign investors.

"Previously what happened was that the communists had a very strong rural base so they used to keep winning in the villages," explains 25-year-old IT consultant Ruhin Chatterjee, one among millions of young middle-class voters who support the communists. "But in the cities they never won. This latest election has seen a change in that."

One of the marks of increased wealth is the creation of shopping malls with advertising hoardings for high-rise dream homes, designer labels and massage therapy.

But the truth is that they are a rarity.

About 80% of Indians still live on less than $2 a day, whereas in China that figure has dropped to less than 50%.

While mobile phones seem to abound in Calcutta, 13 Chinese have one to every one Indian.

The statistics in other areas bear out the same story - China has outpaced India in just about every level of development.

And in the crucial area of direct foreign investment, China receives almost $60bn a year compared to just $5bn for the whole of India.

"Chinese economy has an inner strength," admits Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, whose plan for development depends on attracting billions of dollars in foreign investment.

"They are bargaining from a position of strength. We cannot compete with China."

Fierce competition

Communist party supporters celebrate their election victory on 11 May
The communists increased their mandate in recent elections

Central to the debate is the Chinese argument that democracy stops development.

But a straw poll in the middle-class Calcutta mall brings out a definitive response.

"China does not practice human rights," said a middle-aged woman, to which a young man next to her added, "We are not ready to sacrifice our human rights to get people out of poverty. No."

Thirty miles outside of Calcutta, in a village where 90% of the people voted for the communists, the response is the same.

"Vote," says one farmer. "Vote is best."

West Bengal has been in a 30-year experiment in running a communist administration within a democracy.

It is way behind China and has not delivered much more than any other Indian state.

Its literacy rate of just under 70% is about mid-way among all the Indian states.

If the state's ruling communists do begin to follow China as they once followed the Soviet Union, their supporters - rich or poor - would draw a line on the Chinese formula of curtailing rights in order to create wealth.

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