Socialistic india has never tired of playing to the gallery. And Kerala Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan knows that keeping the gallery entertained, even at the cost of progress, can pay mighty dividends. In a move more reminiscent of China under Chairman Mao than of India in the times of UPA-friendly Marxists, the Kerala CM made a show of taking on India Inc. by leading an eviction taskforce in the hill resort of Munnar and telling Tata Tea Ltd to get off government property. Just to make things more telegenic, the veteran CPI(M) leader personally pulled down boards of the Tata company, replacing them with state government ones.
The Chief Minister seems to have donned the cape of crusader protecting people from the mafia of land-grabbing capitalists. We can almost discern a superhero in Mr Achuthanandan. Unfortunately, for the more dramatically inclined, all his talk of taking land reforms to “the next level” and distributing land allegedly grabbed by the Tatas among landless farm workers and adivasis, and — a throwaway to the middle-class here? — promoting tourism without hurting the ecological balance is a sleight of hand rather than a rabbit being pulled out of an empty hat. The dispute over private-public ownership in Munnar goes back to 1971 when part of a 588 sq km piece of land on lease to a private company since 1877 became the Indian government’s property. From the remaining land, tracts were leased out to Tata-Finlay Co. and, rather unsurprisingly, a court case between the government and the company continued till 1982. The Tatas were accused of selling land that was not theirs to begin with. In other words, Munnar became the stuff of property dispute legends. It is in this thick atmosphere of deeds, leases and litigations that Mr Achuthanandan found an arena as an Opposition leader. Now as Chief Minister, he seeks to bolster his communist credentials by reheating the dispute in the microwave.
Tata Tea insists that the land that the Kerala government has accused it of grabbing is not even leased to the company, let alone owned by it. But it doesn’t look as if Mr Achuthanandan really cares about the details. His self-assigned job seems to be to play Robin Hood, regardless of the dangerous signals this gives out not only to the business community but also to those who believe that the State is a benign, law-abiding entity.