Mamata Banerjee may have revived the CPI-M's sagging fortunes in West Bengal. Election forecasts are dicey. But at the end of the Singur saga this is how poll prospects appear for West Bengal in the next Lok Sabha poll.
By strongly supporting farmers who had lost their land to the Tatas, Mamata was poaching on the traditional CPI-M vote. Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee's ham handed approach while acquiring land had alienated dispossessed landowning farmers. His support for market economy alienated many of his own party colleagues. He was isolated. Mamata jumped into the fray. Instead of focusing on much needed reform of land acquisition law she encouraged muscle power to oppose the Nano car project. The Tatas had breached no law while acquiring land for their small car project. If the manner and terms of acquiring the land were inequitable, the responsibility lay with the Left Front government. For Mamata, seeking to hoist the CPI-M on its own petard, this globally hyped project offered the ideal platform for radical political propaganda.
But Mamata didn't know when to stop. She didn't know how to compromise. During the protracted attrition war over the project, farmers had started looking forward to their compensation packages that included jobs. Making West Bengal an industrial hub was hugely welcomed by the middle class. And the middle class does influence public opinion. West Bengal socially perhaps is the most advanced state in India. It offers the most hospitable environment for global business executives. The Nano car has a potential global market. West Bengal's future looked dazzling.
Meanwhile Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee desperately sought to preserve the project for which he had defied his party comrades. In public perception he went to considerable length for a compromise. The public at large had gradually veered around to overwhelming support for the project. People tended to overlook the CM's earlier mishandling while acquiring land. Sympathy for his efforts to save the project grew.
Now will Mamata herself get isolated? She did not delay the deal. She derailed it. Why? A year ago the Tatas quietly and peacefully acquired more land for a bigger project an hour away from Kolkata, Tata Telcon at Kharagpur. Why didn't Mamata protest? Her party colleague Partha Chatterjee explained: 'The atmosphere was different.' How? Was it different simply because Samajhwadi Party leader Amar Singh had not accompanied Mamata to Kharagpur as he did to Singhur? This started to appear increasingly like unabashed, cynical politics divorced from public welfare. Inevitably the Tatas pulled out. This denied West Bengal not only the Nano project but possibly substantial future investment.
How will this affect West Bengal's poll prospects? Mamata's effort to win over the traditional Left vote is unlikely to succeed. At the end of the day traditional supporters of ideological cadre based parties may grumble and dissent to their heart's content. They rarely abandon the parent party. The only silver lining for Mamata is provided by the Maoists. Ideologically they claim to be left of the Left Front. They conceivably could wean away West Bengal's rural vote from the Left Front. But if they do succeed in damaging the CPI-M, which party will gain? If Mamata openly aligns in an electoral front with the Maoists, how would that impact on her own party, not to mention her potential ally, the Congress? The West Bengal Maoists did invite representatives of the ruling Nepal Maoists to a rally for launching an electoral wing of the party. But that wing has to materialize. If it does, will it openly align with Mamata? These are as yet imponderables for the next poll.
On the other hand this crisis may add new middle class voters to the CPI-M. If the party can manage to cling on to a substantial chunk of its rural vote, the electoral add-ons may actually help CPI-M to retain or even improve its standing. Provided, of course, party hardliners don't botch up its prospects. Much, therefore, depends on the Maoists. If they enter the electoral fray in West Bengal they could as well do so throughout India. They could exert a nationwide impact on the polls. That is, if they go whole hog and follow the example of Nepal Maoist leader, Prachanda. The latter has made amply clear that he prefers development to dogma.