It’s often easy to despair of Indian politics and politicians, and the behavior of top figures in two important Indian states – West Bengal and Karnataka – make this is one of those times.
In both places, political leaders have in the past week shown scant regard for the good of their states and the people who live there, in one case choosing to support the brutal muscle of political cadres above forces of law and order, and in the other putting opportunities for potential graft above stable government.
Meanwhile the central government, led by prime minister Manmohan Singh and Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi, is saying little because it wants to avoid upsetting sensitive political alliances and vote banks ahead of coming state elections and, possibly, a general election.
The story starts in Nandigram where plans for a 10,000-acre special economic zone led to violent protests and at least 14 deaths last March and April. Trouble has broken out again in recent weeks. This time it has been caused not by the poor trying to protect their land but by armed cadres of the CPI-M, India’s biggest Communist party which leads West Bengal’s Left Front government, re-establishing its traditional control over the area by ousting rival political groups that had moved in during the earlier troubles.
Houses and shops were burned and ransacked and fear was spread by patrolling motorbike convoys carrying red flags. Reports said at least eleven people were killed and more than 100 beaten up and injured. Last week the government kept para-military forces, which were supposed to have stepped in, out of the area till the armed CPI-M cadres – or goons to use a more apt word – were back in control.
That is bad enough, but what has shocked people of all shades of opinion is the behavior of CPI-M chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, a mild looking man who has been feted internationally as a forward looking economic reformer.
Instead of trying to rein in his party’s activists, he endorsed what they had done, saying they were “justified”. Referring to earlier violence by the opposing groups, he said that ”the opposition has been paid back in the same coin”. Commentators have been noting that this puts him almost in the same camp as Narendra Modi, the much-criticized Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) chief minister of Gujarat, who allowed rampant anti-Muslim violence in his state in 2002 without ordering police action.
It is being suggested that this was not a Bhattacharjee aberration but the CPI-M being seen in its true colors. Vir Sanghvi, a widely read columnist, wrote in the Hindustan Times last Sunday that people who have lived in West Bengal “recognize the party for what it truly is: a rigidly disciplined totalitarian outfit which depends on murderous cadres and which has no real patience with democracy and dissent”.
Such reports of the Left Front’s toughness with opponents, and its firm grip on West Bengal’s politics, have often been heard during the 30 years that the CPI-M and its allies have run the government, but no-one expected such an open endorsement of lawlessness.
(Ironically, the Nandigram events appear to have eased the path of India’s proposed nuclear deal with the US. The CPI-M has been leading opposition to the deal and has threatened to withdraw its parliamentary support for the Congress-led coalition government if the deal went ahead. That could have provoked a general election, which the Left is now in no condition to face because it would almost certainly do badly in West Bengal and elsewhere. So it has toned down its opposition and agreed at the end of last week that the Indian government should take the next step towards a deal and hold talks with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Geneva. It is however insisting that the government reports back after the talks, which might lead to another impasse and more delays.)
Meanwhile in Karnataka, a BJP-led state government that took power just a week ago was brought down yesterday by its coalition partners because of a disagreement over allocation of ministerial portfolios.
“Fight over rich ministries fells Karnataka Government” said a neat Hindustan Times headline this morning (Nov 20). The Janata Dal (S) party, led by former prime minister Deve Gowda, pulled out of the coalition because the BJP would not agree to let it have lucrative ministerial posts covering housing and development, and mining – posts that are always coveted in governments across India because of the largesse they bring from would-be licensees and contractors.
Karnataka has now had three governments in as many years and is sinking rapidly into the sort of administrative torpor more usual in the blighted northern state of Bihar. That is bad news for a state which has as its capital the showcase city of Bangalore, where big IT names such as Infosys and Wipro are located. No wonder IT companies are expanding elsewhere.