A small tree sometimes casts a long shadow. The saying aptly describes the case of two obscure villages in West Bengal — Naxalbari and Nandigram — especially for the ruling CPI(M). Naxalbari paved the route for the party to acquire and retain its firm grip on the state’s rural peasantry.
Now, Nandigram is supposed to be the path to industrialising the state. It was a small uprising of peasants in Naxalbari in the mid-Sixties that shaped the land reforms measures — Operation Barga — adopted by the CPI(M) in the Seventies and helped the party to translate the overwhelming agrarian support for these measures into a long-term vote-bank. The unflinching support of the peasantry of the state has put the CPI(M) in an unenviable position. No matter what other parties may say, the CPI(M) has left very little space for its political opponents in the state.
Now after three decades of undisturbed rule based on the ‘peaceful agrarian revolution’ model, the CPI(M)-led government wants to lead the state through a seamless transition to become an industrialised state. Realising that the returns from a predominantly agrarian economy will not provide the thrust to break the economic stagnation in the state, the CPI(M) under Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has embarked on what is a clear paradigm shift in the party’s economic vision. But, as the party is discovering, there is an uncomfortable and inevitable dialectic it will have to face in the transition. An industry-friendly regime will entail acquisition of land and it is the tillers who will be at the receiving end. This is the dichotomy.
Be it Nandigram or Singur, the party appeared to be in a tearing hurry to show the rest of the country that its chief minister means business. The party at the Centre may be speaking in a different voice on SEZs, displacement of locals and the kind of packages that are to be offered, but when it comes to West Bengal, one sees a determined and concerted effort by the party and the government to push a liberal economic agenda to attract industrial investment.
What happened in Nandigram, where the Salim Group of Industries would be setting up its SEZ project, has no parallel. It’s more shocking because it happened after Singur, which too witnessed tense moments. One expected the state government to be on alert and cautious in handling such situations. Instead, the Nandigram incidents, where the district administration allowed party cadres to go on a rampage, are a virtual indictment of the state’s governance.
Faced with the ensuing uproar, the CM and party leaders have changed their tune. After days of tension and violence, they now blame the Haldia Development Authority (headed by their own party MP Lakshman Seth) for pushing the land acquisition matter in a ham-handed manner. The HDA becomes an easy scapegoat. What else is this if not double-speak? Will anyone with any intelligence believe that the HDA had issued notices without the knowledge of the government, the party and the CM, that too in a Marxist-ruled state where the party and the government always act in tandem?
The irony is that in Operation Barga, the party backed the actual tillers (tenants) who were allowed to keep 75 per cent of produce for themselves and give 25 per cent to the landowners. The ratio for sharing compensation in lieu of land has been reversed. At least in the Singur package, the tillers who will lose their source of income for ever and face displacement will get 25 per cent and the owners 75 per cent. It is but natural for rural Bengal to be up in arms against the state government. For the poor farmers, Operation Barga saw the rich and affluent being dispossessed in favour of the poor. The same party government wants land back for the rich and powerful to set up industries. As of now, the protests may have been restricted to pockets where SEZs are to be set up or where land is to be acquired for industries. But violence like that which happened in Nandigram could bring the peasantry together.
Political parties like the Trinamool Congress, the Congress and the BJP, which had been marginalised in political action in rural Bengal will be only too happy to capitalise on the volatile scenario. This can’t be a happy development for the CPI(M). Mamata Banerjee can be dismissed as a rabble-rouser and her influence may be restricted to urban areas. But the agitation at Singur has given her a fresh leash of political life and can bring her back to centrestage in West Bengal.
The reality is that the CPI(M)’s over-eagerness to change its image has resulted in unease in pockets of rural Bengal. No doubt that the party was perceived to be a stumbling block in the state’s economic development. It was the Left that was the catalytic agent in making industries in West Bengal become sick and eventually shut down because of their aggressive trade union activities. The realisation that the state needs industrial development is late in coming and the party did not appear to have any strategy on how to steer the change. Worse, its handling of Nandigram and Singur showed, ironically, that after having acquired a near political monopoly over the rural areas through a stated empowerment agenda, the party was inclined to treat these as its fiefdom where its fiat could be used to ruthlessly put down any discontent against its own actions.
The developments in West Bengal have caused a major dent in the image that the CPI(M) seeks to portray at the Centre of being the bulwark against anti-poor radical economic reforms under the UPA government. Shifting gears is not always as easy as it appears. Nandigram could be the turning point against the party, unless the CPI(M) learns from its lessons.