CALCUTTA, May 2006
Subodh Roy, I see when he stands up to greet me, is a small yet powerful figure. He holds the edge of his newspaper down on the desk top, to stop the overhead ceiling fan blowing it about.
At 88, his voice is soft, difficult to hear above the noise of traffic horns and bustle from the poor Muslim neighbourhood outside.
But his confidence is unwavering.
‘Stalin,’ I said. ‘Was he a good leader?’
‘Yes. Yes. Stalin was strong,’ he says, his eyes straight on me.
‘And Mao Tse-Tung of China?’
‘Yes, Mao. He was good. He fought for communism, too, in the Chinese way.’
‘But I thought communism had failed?’ I said.
‘No. No,’ replies Mr Roy. ‘We will get it right this time.’
We are in the headquarters of the Communist Party of West Bengal where the meeting room is adorned with portraits of Stalin, Marx, Engels and Lenin.
There is a bust of Mao and a painting of Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh, with red banners of the hammer and sickle stretched across the walls.
The place has a spring in its step, because the chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, huddled in a nearby room, is celebrating his Communist Party’s seventh consecutive election victory, with a vastly increased mandate. He is brimming with new ideas on how to re-apply communism to make it work and he is not looking West towards the World Bank or Wall Street for advice, but East towards China.
‘The main thing China has done,’ he says, ‘is to allow different types of ownership: state ownership, collective ownership – even private ownership and foreign investment. That’s what we’re planning.’
‘But you’re a democracy,’ I question. ‘China says it achieved its success precisely because it isn’t one.’
‘Yes,’ he smiles ruefully.
‘We know the one party-state won’t work here. The Chinese economy has an inner strength so they are bargaining from a position of strength. We are still begging.’
All around Calcutta huge billboards advertise designer clothes, mobile phones and dream homes. Down on the streets, though, nothing much seems to have changed. A textured blend of chaotic humanity still reigns. It is as if India – as a vast competing developing nation – is paying lip-service to China’s success, but deep down, it does not actually want it.
‘The thing about China,’ says an urbane middle-aged woman in one of Calcutta’s modern shopping malls, ‘is that the people have no human rights.’
‘Yes,’ adds a young man next to her. ‘We’re not ready to sacrifice human rights to get people out of poverty. Absolutely not.’
That is all very well coming from someone not in poverty, but outside Calcutta, I find two women, heaving sacks of rice along a village track. This is the India where 80% of people live on less than two dollars a day. China has got that down to less than half – meaning that millions and millions have clawed their way out.
To achieve anything like that, India will have to attract foreign money.
But, right now, foreign investors risk £35bn ($65 bn) a year in autocratic China but only £2.5bn ($4.5bn) in democratic India. Why?
You just have to look at the tangle of electrical cables clustered on the sides of buildings and huge signs asking people to report the theft of electricity.
Any multi-national company investing in India’s power industry would have to deal with the fact that a quarter of all India’s electricity is stolen. And no-one seems to be doing much about it.
So I ask the two women, who have put their rice down by a hut: ‘Would you be happy to forfeit your right to vote if it meant improving your living standards.’
‘Vote,’ they say. Villagers gather round, shaking their heads. ‘Vote,’ they all say.
‘If we choose the right people, then our lives will improve,’ says one.
‘Did you all support the Communist Party?’
‘Ninety per cent of it,’ says another. ‘They are very good.’
‘But then… ‘ I begin to challenge, and stopped, because India is not like China with its obsessive pursuit of wealth and the future.
Each of the villagers turns out to have an individual dream which they feel this society gives them the freedom to pursue – at least a bit.
One man sees himself as a poet. Another wants a breakthrough as a singer. And as for the Communist Party, well it has given them all small plots of land.
China’s boom has raised questions within the developing world as to whether human dignity should be measured by material wealth or freedom, and it is trying to prove that in the early stages you cannot have both That has led many Indians to question whether their own country has too much democracy.
Returning from the village, a demonstration blocks off one of Calcutta’s main intersections dominated as it happens by a statue of Lenin.
We divert down small roads, crammed with market stalls. Walking through the crowd, head high, eyes curious, arms swinging confidently and oozing self esteem, is a man without a stitch of clothing on. Those around – mothers, children, shoppers, traders – do not flinch.
In China – in fact, in most places in the world – he would be arrested. But this is India, where freedom and human dignity are measured in a different way.