The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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From darkness, Mamata back in limelight
- Appraisal hour

In a sense, the way Mamata Banerjee ended her 25-day fast symbolised her agitation over Singur. When she actually broke the fast, there were too many players and too many factors to make it a free choice for her.

Her agitation, like any other political campaign, had been a gamble. She and her colleagues knew it. But they could not have bargained for the direction it eventually took and might actually be a little upset about the political circumstances in which the fast ended.

This is not to suggest that she gained nothing from the Singur agitation. The most obvious gain was her return to the centre stage of Bengal politics — a successful comeback after her humiliating defeat in the Assembly elections last May. Her Singur campaign crowns her once again as the prime mover of anti-Left politics in Bengal.

This campaign was potentially very different from most others Mamata had led. Most of her other campaigns were anti-CPM or anti-government; it was not always easy to see whom they aimed to benefit, except, of course, herself and her party.

This was the first time she had a well-defined “pro-people” issue; it was easy for her to create the public perception that she was fighting, not just against the CPM, but for the farmers of Singur. Also, the question of the use of agricultural land for industry or projects like special economic zones is poised to become a major national controversy; Mamata’s campaign could thus have acquired a relevance beyond Bengal as well.

If that was an advantage for her, it had its flip side too. In trying to win new friends among the Singur farmers and to influence other sections of the people, she was also taking a risk. The pro-farmer image of her agitation was one part of it; the other part had to be anti-industry or anti-development and this was a negative perception she and her party had to fight. The problem for her was that the upper and middle classes, especially in urban and semi-urban areas, are Mamata’s natural social allies.

By opposing the Tata group’s small-car project, she has alienated sections of her own social constituency, which are now convinced that her opposition to the CPM has been carried to an absurd level where it has become irrational resistance to Bengal’s development. This precisely is the image of Mamata the CPM wants to project.

But couldn’t she gain among the farmers the support she may have lost among the middle classes' Or, could her new allies in the villages handsomely compensate the losses among the old faithful' There were also signs that a section of the middle classes, which is not usually enamoured of her brand of politics, turned sympathetic to her “pro-farmer” cause. The Naxalites and other leaders on her fast platform indicated this circle of new, if also small, allies.

For sections of common people apparently forgiving her party for the vandalism in the Assembly and turning softer to her agitation, it is one thing to be moved by the spectacle of a leader on hunger strike — that too in the highest-visibility part of a city — and quite another to be drawn into lasting political sympathy.

Much the same contradiction characterised Mamata’s attempt, largely successful, to use her fast to make herself relevant again to the national political agenda. Neither she nor the BJP was quite sure whether she still remained with the NDA. Not that the BJP was particularly bothered about the question after the 2004 Lok Sabha polls saw the Trinamul Congress’s tally from Bengal drop to just one. Her recent drift toward the Congress made things even more confusing for the BJP leaders in Delhi.

Singur and the fast may have given her national political visibility. But this has come at a price — the last few days of her fast pushed her deeper into the BJP’s own agenda than she probably had bargained for. The perception that the BJP hijacked her game pushed her further away from the Congress. All elections have proved that a breach between Mamata and the Congress can only help the CPM.

Surely, the end of the fast will not be the end of her Singur campaign. But everybody, including herself, has come to accept that barring unforeseen developments, the car plant will come up on the acquired land in Singur.

The discussions that Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has promised will amount to tinkering with the compensation package and possibly with only a small por- tion of the disputed parts of the land. It will depend on Mamata, though, if she can turn it into a winning campaign elsewhere even if she loses in Singur.

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