The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Dent in Left advantage

If the Trinamul Congressís violence in the Assembly had given Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee a distinct political advantage in the Singur campaign, he lost some of it in the police action there on Saturday.

Any government in a democracy faces uncomfortable questions about invoking restrictive laws such as the 144 CrPc. But both the chief minister and the Left Front now face an even more disturbing question as to why the administration failed to prevent the violence in Singur despite the prohibitory orders under Section 144.

It cannot be that either the government or the Left parties saw Section 144 as a final guarantee against all trouble in Singur or expected it to make the land acquisition there a smooth affair. Political activists routinely violate Section 144 and such programmes frequently turn violent.

The events in Singur clearly suggest that the police and the administration had underestimated the challenge posed by political groups other than Trinamul. It was not unknown that several Naxalite groups were planning their own Singur campaigns.

On Saturday, it was the day of the CPI(ML-Liberation), which has no presence in the area and had to mobilise its cadre mostly from Calcutta. That the police failed to tackle even such small groups and that too despite prior information of their programme proves the administrationís inefficiency.

The administrative failure apart, questions will now be raised within the CPM and other parties in the Left Front about the wisdom of forcing political parties out of the arena and treating it only as an administrative issue. True, the governmentís argument is that it wanted to keep the parties away in order to avoid trouble. Even if one accepts this argument, the administration has clearly failed the first major test in Singur.

The chief minister and the CPM cannot, therefore, escape the political cost of the police action. Any violence involving the police is seen differently by the people from that between political activists.

Two facts, however, stand out in the governmentís favour. One, Saturdayís events show that the troublemakers were mostly outsiders. The government and the Left parties will try to use this as further evidence of their claim that the land-losers in Singur themselves are not opposed to the Tata groupís automobile project.

Two, the government has managed to acquire 945 acres out of a total project area of 997 acres from the farmers without much show of administrative might.

The payment of compensation to them has also been completed without much trouble, despite small protests in the early stages.

Even so, neither the chief minister nor his party expected the transfer of land to the Tatas to be a completely smooth affair. Both must be fairly familiar with what has been happening in China over precisely the same issue ó acquisition of land from farmers for setting up new industries. If a totalitarian state such as China is witnessing such social protests and even bloody showdowns between farmers and the police, any government in a democracy can actually face worse problems over similar industrialisation moves.

But, like China, Bhattacharjee and his party have decided to take the political risk because they think that these costs are small compared to the much larger economic and social benefits that industrialisation will bring to Bengal. If that sounds like a typical capitalist argument from a communist party, neither the Chinese nor the Bengali communists really bother about that. The comrades in Bengal also think that the costs of not taking the industrialisation road will be infinitely larger.

Right now, though, the chief minister and his party would be more bothered about how to pass the Singur test. It is not a test they can avoid or even stall. That would not only be seen as political defeat but, more important, it would also have a snowballing effect on a host of other projects that Bhattacharjee is betting on to launch a new age in Bengalís economy.

Singur may continue to trigger violence not just there but also in other parts of the state. But, ultimately, it is only the beginning of a long battle for a transition to new social and economic development. No major transformation comes without conflicts. The question is what Bhattacharjee can do to minimise such conflicts or how he manages them.

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