The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Long shadow of double blunder

Calcutta, Jan. 7: A government in retreat and an aggressive CPM reliving the days of “half-partisan warfare”.

If that led to the tragedy at Nandigram, it also sums up the twin failures of administrative and political management. And this failure — even after Singur — could be the source of more trouble for Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s industrialisation agenda.

The whole truth about Nandigram may take some time to emerge. But the colossal administrative failure there seems to be beyond any doubt.

It was no sudden flare-up; tension was building up in the area for several months and the first warning came three days ago when agitating farmers, fearing the loss of their land to the Salim Group’s proposed special economic zone, clashed with police for the first time.

Yet, the government withdrew from the area, leaving an insecure — and potentially aggressive — people to grapple with their fears. The government and the CPM argue that the state’s intervention at Nandigram at this stage would have made things worse.

But there clearly was an inadequate understanding of the possible consequence of the government’s retreat; there was no evidence that the administration had put in place any strategy to avert violence till the time the police could move into Nandigram.

Worse still, this withering of the state happened simultaneously with the CPM preparing for an offensive against the agitating farmers at Nandigram.

It was known to the police that the party had set up camps close to Nandigram, apparently to shelter comrades who had been evicted from their homes by the agitating farmers. Literally, the battle lines were being drawn. Even if the police could not enter the trouble spots at Nandigram, it is difficult to see why policemen were not posted near the CPM camps. That could have ensured two things at the same time — protect the CPM men sheltered there and prevent them and other partymen joining them from launching attacks on the Nandigram farmers. That the administration did not do so smells of complicity.

If that turned Nandigram into a flashpoint waiting to explode, some CPM leaders ignited it with public calls to half-partisan warfare. Leading them was Benoy Konar, veteran peasant leader, who saw in Nandigram the making of a Keshpur and urged partymen to “strike in self-defence”.

But then, Konar is not alone in this; the party as a whole invokes the Keshpur parallel. This must have been a battle strategy rather than anything else because the leaders cannot be unaware that Nandigram is a very different matter.

At Keshpur, also in East Midnapore, the party took a severe beating in 1998 from the Trinamul Congress, whose workers openly used arms to clear the area of Marxists.

Two years later, the CPM regained Keshpur, also with the help of arms.

But Keshpur was a battle for political territory; Nandigram is a battleground over a development agenda that has pitted the party and the government against affected farmers.

The party’s miscalculation over Nandigram is also shown by the way it is trying to see a “communal angle” to the farmers’ agitation.

Even if the Jamat-e-Ulema Hind is a major player in organising the peasants’ stir, the issue clearly is one of land and not of communal politics. To give it a communal colour could only make things worse.

In much the same manner, the CPM has cited its political battles during the land reforms movement with the current political controversy over industrialisation. The party argues that it has faced – and won – political challenges over its movement for seizure and distribution of land. The battle for industrialisation, it says, will be joined and won the same way.

But the difference in the two situations is far too obvious for anyone to miss – the CPM then was giving land to the landless and the industrialisation policy has now reversed its role, making it the party that wants to take away land from the farmers. The party’s campaign about the benefits of industrialisation, irrespective of its merit, has obviously not convinced the affected farmers as yet.

Not just the farmers, the CPM’s partners in the Left Front, too, are not convinced that the government should force the industrialisation agenda at the cost of displacement and large-scale socio-economic dislocation of people’s lives. Such questions may be increasingly raised even within the CPM, although the party has debated them for several years now and decided to take the political risks in implementing the industrialisation agenda.

The problem for the chief minister and the party is that total withdrawal from the industrialisation agenda is not an option for them. But then, forcing it with the help of the police will neither give it political legitimacy nor solve the problem of political - and potentially violent – confrontations.

The CPM may be forced to take a more realistic view of the complex challenges of the economic transition that it wants to usher in in Bengal. That could mean a go-slow on industrialisation and even a climbdown on certain aspects of it. The government’s latest announcement that it would put a brake on new SEZs is an indication of this change of strategy.

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