Major issues literally came pouring out into our path when I went electioneering in the Barrackpur parliamentary constituency of West Bengal with Dinesh Trivedi, the Trinamool Congress candidate a few days ago.
The apparently massive rejection– I was going to say disenchantment but it is not a strong enough word – of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), whose Left Front government has run the state for 32 years, was expressed by many people, especially women, during three hours I spent walking around the Amdanga area with Trivedi, a former Rajya Sabha MP who is standing for the Lok Sabha in Barrackpur for the first time.
“I wish you to win. I want peace and an end to terror,” said Arpita, an 18-year old student who will be voting for the first time on Thursday, when West Bengal goes into the second of its three election stages. “We want a peaceful election. Here people force us not to vote”. Many others expressed similar views with stories that alleged the CPI(M) threatened violence against whose who would vote. People said the government had failed in terms of development – in one scheduled caste village there was no electricity, even though it was adjacent to a road.
I went to West Bengal – as I did earlier in Orissa – to see if votes would be swung by clashes over the socially crucial issue of using agricultural land for industrial development. In Orissa, problems over controversial Posco, Tata and other projects seemed to have little impact in the election.
Here in West Bengal however, Tata’s car factory at Singur (above), and plans for a chemicals special economic zone (SEZ) at Nandigram play large, along with localised issues such as demands for a separate Gorkhaland state in the north of West Bengal and police violence against tribals.
This is firstly because, unlike Orissa, these two now-abandoned development projects became, and remain, a primary battleground between the two major political parties – the CPI(M) and the Trinamoool. Secondly, Singur and Nandigram showed the CPI(M) at its worst when its cadres used force to gain control and to try to force implementation of the projects. Consequently, they have provided a base for wider opposition, especially in rural areas, as was shown by the women of Amdanga.
In such places located far away from the two projects, the Trinamool has focused local attention on Singur with a horrifying poster (below) of Tapasi Malik, a young girl protestor who was raped and burned there by two CPI(M) officials in December 2006.
The open way that people dared to come out of their homes to meet us seemed to illustrate a significant anti-CPI(M) tide, at least in these rural areas.
Many Kolkata observers suggest the Left’s 35 Lok Sabha seats in West Bengal (out of a total of 42) will come down by about 15. An official at the CPI(M) headquarters said it would only lose three to five seats, and a strong supporter said seven. The Trinamool, led by Mamata Banerjee, was tipped to be the main beneficiary, with its Congress Party ally benefiting less.
I heard many reports, both in Barrackpur and elsewhere, of CPI(M) ballot rigging. Trivedi has done research that shows the party has prepared dual election lists for this election – he has tabulated evidence of over 8,000 names – despite the introduction of electronic voting. This allegation was supported by others who said that, when they went to a booth in the past, they were turned away by officials saying “your vote has already been cast”.
Other people told me that the CP(M) can switch perhaps 10% of the votes providing it has about 40% of the locality on its side and controls the bureaucrats in the voting booths. I was also told that two past leaders of Congress used to be good at counter-fixing, but that they are no longer available.
It could be argued that these issues show that the general election is being fought in Bengal, as elsewhere, on local and not national concerns. That would however be wrong because, alongside the CPI(M)’s rough and often violent power tactics, there is the crucial national issue of how India can provide land for industrial development without the agricultural poor being deprived of their traditional livelihoods – though this of course is not being debated by the parties in the election campaign.
What happened at Singur and Nandigram, and in Orissa, underlines the urgent need to repeal the 1894 Land Acquisition Act and replace its powers of compulsory acquisition so that sharecroppers and landless labour, as well as landowners, receive adequate compensation. A way also needs to be found for these stakeholders to have some lasting investment as compensation, which cannot be quickly lost or frittered away, for losing land that has been held for generations – a problem which was clearly evident when I visited Singur last November.
Secondly, governments need to note that society has changed and it is no longer possibly suddenly to push through disruptive development projects such as the SEZs that were promoted without adequate policy preparation by commerce and industry minister Kamal Nath, and were then enthusiastically picked up by influential business groups.
There is also a lesson for political parties: you cannot expect easily to take away that which you have given. Specifically, as Rajat Roy, a local journalist and former newspaper editor, pointed out to me, it was a major misjudgement of the CPI(M) to believe that it could compulsorily acquire rich agricultural land from people to whom it had given that land as part of its widely-admired land reforms over the past 30 years.
CPI(M) supporters counter this by saying that the government has distributed 30,000 acres under land reforms in recent years, which far outstrips that needed by the projects, and that the government has to use some agricultural land because it accounts for 78% of West Bengal’s land area – far more than in many other states. That may be true, but the Singur and Nandigram land was part of a highly fertile belt that stretched down the state on either side of the Hooghly River.
The first major project on this rich agricultural land was a new town at Rajarhat built about nine years ago on the edge of Kolkata. This was followed by Tata’s would-be Nano small car factory at Singur, which was then followed by the SEZ at Nandigram promoted by the Salim group of Indonesia.
Rajahart was built without protest, but Trinanmool’s Banerjee then saw Singur as a platform for opposition in 2006. After many months of secret negotiations with Tata Motors, she returned to oppose the car project again at the end of 2007 when Nandigram had blown into a focal point for opposition.
Uday Basu, a veteran Statesman journalist, told me that she “cleverly turned the land grab issue into populist politics”. She had – and has – no primary policy agenda but then “hijacked the Left’s old land-for-the-poor policy”. He foresees bloodshed if the Trinamool does so well in the general election that the CPI(M) feels vulnerable for the 2011 assembly elections, and for Kolkata municipal corporation elections due next year.
All this is quite a change for Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, chief minister since late 2000, who became the darling of the west in his early reformist years when he seemed to be successfully industrialising the state. This attracted foreign companies and enriched local business houses, especially those involved in real estate that are now locked into the CPI(M) system.
Editors of foreign titles such as the FT, Economist and Fortune, and other visitors, would rush eagerly to Kalkota (not usually on their travel itineraries) to meet this new paragon of liberalisation.
Rudrangshu Mukherjee, an editor at Kolkata’s Telegraph newspaper, remembers that Henry Kissinger likened Bhattacharya to China’s great economic reformer, Deng Xiaoping, when the two met in November. Henry Paulson, then US treasury secretary, and Dick Parsons, then chairman of AOL Time Warner, had been there the previous week – all of them after attending conferences in Delhi.
Kissinger of course was nearer the truth than he realised because Bhattacharya clearly thought he could take over land occupied by the rural masses in the style of China’s leaders. Many people would say that this brought out the CPI(M) in its true colours. The voters of West Bengal now have a chance to pass their verdict.
This is a slightly extended and illustrated (and unedited) version of an article in Mint, an Indian daily newspaper – http://www.livemint.com/2009/05/04000418/Massive-rejection-of-the-CPM.html – starting with the same walk that I reported here last week.
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