Politics of Nihilism in Nandigram

The Nandigram episode in West Bengal has highlighted all the unfortunate characteristics of Indian politics - the government's dependence on a habitually insensitive police force which recalls colonial rule, the opposition's cussedness, and a lack of consensus in the political class and among intellectuals on economic policies because of opportunistic and doctrinaire reasons.

If one adds to this mess Governor Gopal Krishna Gandhi's pro-active role, whose constitutional propriety is doubtful, then the situation seems almost irretrievable.   

Yet, the problem needn't have arisen at all. When Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya initiated a process of industrialization to undo the harm done to the state's economic and industrial scene by the militant trade union tactics of the Left in the past, his endeavors should have been welcomed.

This is exactly what Prime Minister Manmohan Singh did when he lauded in parliament his "friend" Bhattacharya's industrialization drive and echoed the latter's argument that farming operations have reached a dead end. Instead of a further subdivision of agricultural land among peasant families resulting in a growing number of small and marginal farmers, steps have to be taken to develop industries to provide jobs and take the pressure off the land.

But Bhattacharya's opponents had other things on their mind. First, they tried to exploit the inevitable dislocation caused during a process of transition from agriculture to industry to embarrass the government. Then, they used the violence, sparked by the provocative tactics of the agitators and highhandedness of the police, to say that a popular movement was being crushed.

Nandigram provided the worst manifestation of these factors. By digging up roads and destroying bridges and culverts, the demonstrators, claiming to act on behalf of the villagers, virtually barricaded themselves against the state authority to register their protest against the proposed Special Economic Zone (SEZ) for the area.

There was clearly an element of nihilism in such destructive politics. The protagonists looked neither to the past to assess what led to West Bengal losing its primacy in the industrial field, nor to the future to analyze what needed to be done to remedy the situation. All that they were concerned about was to needle the government.

Little wonder that a motley collection of parties and individuals banded together to oppose the SEZ and the proposed car factory by the Tatas in Singur. They ranged from the far Left to the far Right - from Naxalite sympathizers like the Akademi award winning writer Mahasweta Devi to avowed leftists like historian Sumit Sarkar and Booker Prize winner Arundhati Roy to perennial do-gooders like Medha Patkar to minuscule Left parties like the Socialist Unity Centre of India to politicians who fared poorly in the last assembly elections like Mamata Banerjee to the Bharatiya Janata Party, which does not have any base at all in the state.

The similarity with the Luddities, who opposed the Industrial Revolution in England, is obvious. The comparison with the anti-industrial Narodniks of Czarist Russia, as has been made out by Prakash Karat, general secretary of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), is also apt.

The West Bengal Congress too has jumped into the fray, believing that it is the duty of an opposition party to oppose the government, irrespective of the issues although the party's own prime minister has praised Bhattacharya as a "model" chief minister because of his support for economic reforms.

While the opposition parties seemingly played their self-allotted negative role, some of Bhattacharya's allies in the ruling Left Front also took up the cudgels against him because they believed, like Sumit Sarkar, that he was violating pristine Marxist tenets by supping with the capitalists. They also did not want to lose this opportunity to corner Big Brother CPI-M.

While the government apparently managed to bring the situation in Singur under control, the cutting off of Nandigram from the outside world was a godsend to the Naxalites since this is exactly the kind of "liberated" area which is their ideal environment.

Since no government can allow an entire region to be cordoned off in this manner, the police moved in on Wednesday (March 14) after nearly two months. But this is where the government's own follies came to the fore.

For a start, like a genuine communist party that makes no distinction between the police and party cadres, the CPI-M apparently used both groups to intimidate and evict their opponents in the area. Undeniably, these are the tactics the CPI-M and the Left Front have used through the 30 years that they have been in power in West Bengal to virtually pulverize the opposition.

But apparently because of the division in even the CPI-M as a result of the lack of conviction about the pro-private sector policies, the old methods of sweeping aside the opponents did not work this time. The fear among the farmers about losing their land also evidently emboldened the agitators.

The police, too, acted in the only way that they know - brutally. Hindsight suggests that the police would have been better advised to keep away from Nandigram for another few months, leaving the area alone till the inconveniences of the breakdown of transport and communications with the rest of the state made the local residents change their minds.

In any event, since the government has already announced that it would not set up the SEZ there, there was no need to hurry. But the CPI-M, long used to exercising unchallenged authority, evidently could not accept the humiliation of having been virtually thrown out of Nandigram. The eviction of its sympathizers from the village must have also forced the government's hand. The resultant turmoil may well dissuade the industrialists from investing in the state.

West Bengal experienced a flight of capital in the 60s because of communist depredations. Now, when sections of the Left have at last seen sense, their opponents, including the ultra-Left, are trying to ensure that the earlier mistake is not rectified.

(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at   


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