In 2011, Trinamool Congress (TMC) chief Mamata Banerjee swept out the 34-year-old Left government in West Bengal, riding on a land agitation wave. It was ironic, for the Left owed its rise in Bengal to a movement for land rights and the most prominent political achievement of the CPI(M)-led Left Front government was also the land reforms programme. Over the past two weeks, Bengal has been rocked again by a land agitation -- villagers at Bhangar in South 24 Parganas are objecting to a Power Grid Corporation of India’s (PGCI) project for more efficient distribution of electricity.
This development conceals two ironies. One, the agitators are directing their ire against the Mamata Banerjee government though not pinning it on her as an individual. Two, the project is being executed by a PSU and does not carry any vestiges of private profit that once was a rallying point against the Nano project in Singur of the then Opposition (TMC).
But perhaps more significant, the opposition to the project signifies a failure for the model that the state government was ‘experimenting’ with. While the government under Left chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee went for acquisition, Ms Banerjee never let an opportunity slip to announce that her government will not acquire a square inch of land if the villagers object.
In 2013-14, the PGCI began purchasing land from locals some of whom were not ready to part with their fertile land. When the PSU failed, supporters of local TMC leader Arabul Islam entered the scene and forced the villagers to sell their land.
But in 2015, Arabul Islam fell from grace and his rival factions gained importance in the area. The eclipse of the strongman encouraged the villagers to raise their voice and when none of the established Opposition parties came forward, a little-known Naxalite faction that swears by parliamentary democracy stepped in.
Ms Banerjee who rose to the peak of her four-decade old political career with a resounding victory in the assembly polls could not perhaps imagine in her wildest nightmares that a cluster of villages could prevent her party leaders and the police from entering for more than a week.
Incidentally, the area voted for the ruling party in all the elections -- Lok Sabha (2014), Assembly (2016) and panchayat (2013). The challenge before the Bengal chief minister is to restore the faith of the villagers in her party and government. There is another trust she has to earn -- that of the investors who are still wary of the government’s land policies. It is only a small coincidence that Bhangar erupted just before a two-day investor summit in Kolkata.