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Reverie of quick-fix industrialization

by Ashok Mitra, 28 October 2008

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The Telegraph, October 27, 2008

The Fault Line
- Nano’s exit should give the state administration cause to reflect

Post-Singur West Bengal is even a gloomier picture. Following the decision of Tata Motors to walk away, the mood amongst a few stalwarts in the state administration is reportedly one of stop-the-world-I-want-to-get-off. They do not feel like living any more in West Bengal in the company of those who have spoilt the Nano broth.

Before holding the people of West Bengal responsible for their disappointment, should not these stalwarts first enter into a season of introspection? Their party — and the Left Front it provides leadership to — had won a thumping poll victory in the state barely two-and-a-half years ago; goodwill and affection for the party were at their peak in town and country. All that now seems to be a distant, unreal dream. How has this state of affairs come about?

Perhaps the magnificence of that electoral triumph was itself at the root of the tragic sequences of events since. The party’s state leadership, along with its ministerial team, was relatively young. Most of them had not gone through the grill of toughening that the hard, earlier days of the party provided; their understanding of issues was circumscribed by the existential reality of the party’s overwhelming dominance in the post-1977 period. That apart, the collapse of the Soviet Union and Deng Xiao Ping’s apparent success with market socialism made shambles of the ideological beliefs of the young lambs at the helm. The 2006 poll sweep made up their mind: they must do a Deng, pronto, in West Bengal; whoever opposes them on whichever ground deserves to be sent to the gallows.

There was a problem though. Deng had inherited a post-revolution China with the rigour and discipline of one-party rule; West Bengal was part and parcel of India’s multi-party ‘democratic’ structure. Not bothering over differences in the basic situation, those shaping the destiny of supposedly Marxist West Bengal declared an open house for private capital. Big and small-scale tycoons, with their private axes to grind, began frequenting the state secretariat and the party headquarters; the essentially petit bourgeois party leadership, with little background in working-class struggle, was easy meat for them. Industrial development in the state, it was taken for granted, had to be exclusively at the initiative of private capital. Some neo-literates in the party came up with a bemusing thesis: unless capitalist development had come to full bloom, a proletarian revolution was simply not on. The message went down among party ranks to keep on hold such themes as class antagonism and class war; the primary task of Marxists governing a federating state within the confines of a feudal-capitalist structure was, it was pontificated, to compete with other states in seeking favours from the private sector.

The cause of the private sector became the cause of the government and the leading party in West Bengal. The deus ex machina of democratic centralism was invoked to still intra-party questioning. Things came to a head on the issue of acquisition of land, particularly at Singur and Nandigram, by using an antiquated colonial law which permitted forced acquisition for public purposes. The legislation smacked of both arbitrariness and hauteur. The reverie of quick-fix industrialization in their eye, ministers decided to compulsorily acquire land by claiming private purpose to be indistinguishable from public purpose. It was not considered necessary to discuss the roster of acquisition with local leaders or cadres or representatives of the kisan sabhas or, for the matter, elected panchayat bodies: centralism was at work in the party, it was at work in the administration.

The party, which was once in the forefront in the great agrarian battles for wresting land for the landless and legal rights for tenants as well as for ensuring living wages for the working peasants, discovered itself in a different role: dispossessing the peasantry from their land. The peasantry had been taught by the party to weave dreams around the land that had of late come to them. Suddenly the same party, their own party — and the government they themselves had elected — effected a one-hundred-and-eighty degree turn: the land has to be given up, not for industrialization under state auspices in accordance with a grand programme with which the peasantry were to be actively associated, for example, through offer of co-ownership, but exclusively for advancing the interests of private entities. Things needed to be explained to the peasantry. It called for tact, patience, and calm, reasoned dialogue both within party ranks and with elected representatives of the people in the panchayat bodies.

The tremendous victory in the assembly elections had gone to the head, it was acquisition by diktat. The inevitable happened. Till then the principal party in the opposition in the state had zero, if not negative, credentials. It had no organization worth the name and subsisted on unscrupulous sensationalism. It nonetheless gained enormous strength overnight and assumed a larger-than-life image. What was of greater relevance — a major shift took place in the ruling party’s rural support base.

The coup de grâce was delivered by the grim events in Nandigram on March 14, 2007. It was inconceivable for large sections of people in the state that a communist party — the party of the poor and the dispossessed — could, whatever the provocation, shoot down women and children in cold blood. The fallout of the episode has been far-reaching. The administration’s blunder was the opposition’s opportunity. The regime is now, in every sense, incapacitated. It cannot dare to take any effective law-and-order measures against rampaging crowds for fear of creating more Nandigrams. The motley opposition could detain on the national highway next to Singur thousands and thousands of trucks for days together; the government could do nothing. The Tatas did not take long to make up their mind. Howsoever cloyingly deferential the state administration was towards them, they had no confidence left in it, and decided to call it quits. The bewildered party and the government do not now know which direction to turn; they rail, no doubt with justification, against the demagogy of the principal opposition; they go out of their way to make enemies out of their erstwhile well-wishers whose only sin has been to warn the administration to look before it leaps, but they do not have the guts to speak one word against the tycoon who has left them in the lurch; on the contrary, they gloat over the fact that the latter has given them a good severance certificate.

Could not the picture have been qualitatively different if the small-car project was instead organized either in the public sector or as a joint venture? The issue of land acquisition would then have assumed a different complexion, for those who think a thousand times before conceding land for exploitation by an industrial or commercial tycoon are much more open-minded if the project has the imprimatur of the public sector, and more so if a portion of its equity is set aside for farmers contributing the land and their sharecropper. Besides, had the state government known how to apply political pressure at the right places, the requisite capital for the project might have been made available by public financial institutions like the Life Insurance Corporation of India and the United Trust of India, which are also actually lenders of the first resort to flourishing private enterprises.

The Tatas have now moved to Narendra Modi’s Gujarat. Water has found its own level. Why not leave it at that? It is in any case likely to be an altogether different kind of ball game with the global collapse of finance capital.