| Exploiting the nostalgia
You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. As bandh-bound Calcutta writhed uncomfortably last Monday, it seemed as if people blamed not Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s objective of fast-track industrialization to make up for lost time, but the ineptitude of starting off prematurely and the methods of party hacks and policemen who usurped his authority for their own purposes.
That was before Tuesday’s handsome apology which raised the chief minister above the level of the usual political operators. But does goodness still count in politics' “He’s led by dalals,” a bank security guard announced on Monday when a gang forced him to clang down his Ballygunge ATM shutter. “The dalal who brought Salim didn’t tell Buddha that he’s blacklisted in his own country!” A waiting customer claimed that the Salims were traders, not manufacturers. “They are also dalals. That’s how they made their money!” he declared solemnly. “You wait and see. They’ll hand the land to other parties.” Echoing A.B. Bardhan’s charge that the deal lacked transparency, both said “bhalomanush Buddha” had been taken for a ride.
It’s not quite true to say Sudono Salim is blacklisted in Indonesia. Lim Sioe Liong, to give him his real name, was the richest and most powerful cukong among Suharto’s corrupt cronies. The word means master or lord, and indicates a dual system whereby a Chinese capitalist is in cahoots with an Indonesian brasshat-politician to make money. The cukong system formally ended with Suharto’s fall, and Salim’s Jakarta mansion was burned to the ground in the 1998 anti-Chinese riots. Liem — who is believed to have salted away a fortune in Singapore, and made substantial investments in Hongkong, Japan and Canada — went into hiding in the United States of America. His daughter married the eldest son of Mohamad Mahathir, then Malaysia’s prime minister. But, yes, restricted in Indonesia, the conglomerate is looking for pastures beyond south-east Asia where Suharto and his cukongs are thoroughly discredited. Some of that stench may be drifting across the Bay of Bengal.
Moving from one street-corner to another, eavesdropping on idle wayside gossip made other things apparent. For all the horror of Sunday’s battles, there seemed little inclination to add Nandigram to the list of episodic sites that plot events in Bengali lore — Tamluk, Noakhali, Naxalbari, Debra-Gopiballavpur, Marichjhanpi, Bijon Setu, Sain Bari, etc. The bandh enjoyed little sympathy even from those who observed it; people seemed strangely unmoved by the deaths, recognizing that the victims were not exactly innocent, that Marxists alone were not guilty. The other side, also armed and just as vicious, went on the rampage too. I did not hear much outright criticism of the government’s demand for land. Few might go so far as to endorse it, but a rational and uniform all-India strategy that combines generous cash compensation with rehabilitation and employment to ensure Manmohan Singh’s hope of “a win-win process for all” would probably enjoy tacit acquiescence. It would certainly take the wind from the sails of bats out of hell screaming for a populist cause to rally voters.
Jyoti Basu had a point when, playing footsie with industrialists in the Eighties, he declared that people felt confident about the stress being laid on the private sector: “When well-known companies come in, it helps us.” When a major industrial house sent an emissary to him with sweets and an invitation letter to a family wedding in Bombay, the chief minister told the messenger that it would be more appropriate for his boss to come and set up shop in West Bengal. But enmeshed in vested interests, paralysed by lethargy and unwilling to rock any boats, Basu went no further than making some positive sounds.
Bhattacharjee has stirred a hornet’s nest not just by trying to act where his predecessor only talked, but also by doing so without adequate preparation. His promise to suspend acquisitions until a land map is ready confirms the emptiness of his promise before Singur that only fallow or single-crop land would be acquired. The pledge invited mockery then because everyone knew that the government simply had no idea which field produced now much. What people must know this time is whether the Haldia Development Authority and its all-powerful parliamentarian head, Lakshman Seth, issued the relevant order with the chief minister’s sanction. If not, is the chief minister strong enough to ensure it will be “torn to pieces” because he orders it'
So far as the likes of Seth, Biman Bose and Benoy Konar — or even Mamata Banerjee — are concerned, the land issue is only an excuse. The Trinamool leader needs to refurbish her tattered credibility. Marxist party apparatchiks, hardly so committed to industrialization as to kindle the fires of a land war to push through a special economic zone, are just as self-seeking. Handsome inducement by the same dalal or group of dalals who are acting as the puppet masters of this tragic show could be one explanation for their militancy. Another is that the party saw Bhattacharjee’s self-confessed “blunder” as an opportunity to exterminate rivals and extend its political stranglehold to villages that are neutral or owe allegiance to other groups. As for the police, it was motivated (as always) by a mix of self-aggrandizement and obedience to those whose power, however illegitimate, the force recognizes.
The chief minister must meet these challenges and quell them if anything is to come of his ambitious plans for the state’s economic revival. Tata’s prestige might push through the car plant, but what of Dubai World’s blueprint for tea tourism, a port at Kulpi and another SEZ' Bhattacharjee must follow up his brave confession with firm measures to suppress saboteurs both in his party and outside. Public confessions of mistakes can be calamitous without effective action to ensure that there is no repetition. The promised “dialogue at grassroots level” will yield result only when Marxist cadre, the police, opposition demagogues and those troublesome women of the Narmada Bachao Andolan realize that a government that will not be intimidated has convinced villagers they have everything to gain from the change in land-use.
West Bengal’s dilemma is neither new nor unique. It left nine dead at Kalinganagar in Orissa last year and may be repeated elsewhere in India as more SEZs take off. Peasants defended their fields with pitchfork and shovel in England’s 16th-century agrarian revolts. Anticipating East Midnapore, they filled in ditches and tore down hedges with which the new owners demarcated their privatized common land. About 50 protesters were hanged, drawn and quartered in the 1607 Midland Revolt led by Captain Pouch, who claimed to carry god’s mandate in his pouch. It actually contained only a lump of green cheese. Last year saw 87,000 such clashes in China. Even in tiny Singapore, where land is all the more valuable for being scarce, friends complain of being driven off their pig farms and nurseries to make way for housing estates and factories. It’s an inexorable worldwide process. Warren Hastings hunted tiger on elephant-back on the Maidan. A tiger once took refuge under the billiard table at Singapore’s Raffles Hotel. Native American lore has it that they will be restored to sovereignty when the wild buffalo roams the land again. But North America’s 60 million wild buffaloes have dwindled to 350,000 lurking in the Yellowstone and other national parks.
India “has the resources and the potential to beat other countries”, Bhattacharjee admits. “We can be an economic power in the next 10 years but problems like poverty and lack of development in rural areas have to be taken care of.” That will not be done by boasting of enriching English with the word, gherao, or blaming Muslim communalism for confrontations. Only a realistic rehabilitation strategy can stop people pining for the lost wild buffaloes, and others from exploiting their nostalgia. Sadly, agricultural eggs must break for the omelette of industrialization.