Communist Turnaround From 'Land to Tiller' to 'Land to Tatas

Rarely has there been a more variegated collection of personalities battling for a single cause. Politicians in search of relevance, perennial do-gooders, Marxist and Maoist revolutionaries, writers on the far left of the political spectrum, rightwing leaders - all have assembled together to oppose the West Bengal government-sponsored automobile project of the Tatas in Singur. 

Leading the charge to protest against the handover of fertile agricultural land for industrial purposes is the Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee, who has always been known to oppose whatever the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) does. But it is the motley crowd around her that provides an insight into the political and social ramifications of the protest campaign. 

If Banerjee is the quintessential opposition leader who feels that acceptance of the ruling party's policies - even if they have a positive side - will undermine her position, each of her new friends has his or her personal and political axe to grind. 

Among the first to jump on to Banerjee's bandwagon was all-time social activist Medha Patkar, well known for her opposition to big dams, such as the one on the Narmada river in Gujarat. Although the Singur project has nothing to do with dams, she has discerned a link in the problem of rehabilitating the displaced people which enterprises of this nature entail.

In the process, however, she has had to take on an anti-leftist position because the Tatas have the full backing of the Marxist West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya. It is the same with the Akademi award winning Bengali writer Mahashweta Devi, who is known for her Naxalite (Maoist) sympathies. 

And if these two icons come together, can Booker prize winner Arundhati Roy be far behind? So, she too has led a demonstration in front of the CPI-M office in New Delhi over the Singur issue. 

But what is curious is that these aggressive votaries of Left find themselves today on the same platform as Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Rajnath Singh and convenor of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) George Fernandes, both of whom are usually branded as 'fascists' by Left activists.

The support extended by Singh and Fernandes to Banerjee was only to be expected; she remains a member - albeit an unpredictable one - of NDA. But that is not the full story. Both Singh and Fernandes are after acquiring some kind of political relevance. 

As is known, Singh remains in the shadow of the two BJP stalwarts, Atal Behari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani, despite becoming the party chief with the blessings of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Fernandes is at a loose end, having been virtually evicted from the position of power in his own party, the Janata Dal-United, by the Nitish Kumar-Sharad Yadav duo.

If the 'fascists' are looking for a cause that will bring them into the political limelight, so are the Marxist and Maoist revolutionaries. Hence, the 24-hour shutdown called by the minuscule Socialist Unity Centre of India (SUCI) in West Bengal and the attack by a handful of young men claiming to be Maoists on a Tata automobile showroom in Kolkata. 

Banerjee may have been initially pleased by the support she was getting from both Left and Right, but the pitfalls of such help from people ploughing their own furrows have now become apparent. 

Singh's appearance on the same dais with the Trinamool Congress leader has made the West Bengal Congress distance itself from her after an initial show of solidarity. Now, Patkar too has expressed her uneasiness at being seen on the same side as NDA. The violence of the Naxalites has also put Banerjee in a difficult position.

Herein lies the complexity of a situation that violates the norms of conventional politics. Normally, the likes of Patkar, Mahashweta Devi and Roy would have been behind the Bhattacharya government. But the latter is now pursuing a path diametrically opposed to what the Left upholds. 

Not only that, the state government has also shown no hesitation in using the strong arm of the law to keep the protesters at bay, using tactics which the Left used to routinely associate with 'bourgeois' administrations. 

For Bhattacharya, however, there is evidently no alternative. Having embarked on the path of industrialization, he has to ensure that the investors are not discomfited in any way. And since the Tatas are at the top of the corporate ladder, the government has to be particularly sensitive to their needs, not least because both Orissa and Himachal Pradesh have expressed their willingness to let the Tatas bring their Singur project for manufacturing small cars, priced at Rs.100,000, to these states. 

If the Tatas are compelled to abandon their project in Singur, it will be a major setback to Bhattacharya's efforts to woo foreign and domestic industrialists to invest in West Bengal. Hence, the speed with which his government has fenced of the plot of land to prepare for the arrival of the Tatas.

It has also to be remembered that the comrades can be quite ruthless if they set their minds on something. The Marichjhanpi incident in the Sunderbans in the 70s (mentioned in Amitav Ghosh's The Hungry Tide) is a case in point. The hard-hearted manner in which the Left Front government evicted the East Bengali refugees from there and sent them back to Dandakaranya in what is now Chhattisgarh underlined the same official and political determination now in evidence in Singur.

Yet, at one time, when the leftists were not in power in West Bengal, they used to favour the settlement of the refugees in the Sunderbans. But their views changed after assuming office; just as it has now on industrialization. So, the Left slogan today is not 'land to the tiller', but land to the Tatas.    

(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at aganguli@mail.com)   


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