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Nandi Payback CPM bleeds in land-and-minority backlash; loses 3 councils, gains 1

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  • Published 22.05.08

Calcutta, May 21: The Left today suffered the biggest poll jolt since the 2001 Assembly verdict as it lost two districts to Mamata Banerjee and one to the Congress in the panchayat polls, raising the question whether land acquisition for industry was exacting a heavy political cost.

Shaken though it was by the loss of Nandigram-scarred East Midnapore and South 24-Parganas, the CPM announced: “There will be no going back on the policy of industrialisation.”

Murshidabad was its sole — and big — revenge on the Opposition as it won the district back from the Congress, but it had only 13 of the 17 zilla parishads (district councils) in the bag compared with 15 in 2003.

Land acquisition for industry was an issue in the two south Bengal districts of East Midnapore and South 24-Parganas, though not in North Dinajpur, where the Left could not forge unity among its constituents.

In East Midnapore and South 24-Parganas, both heavily minority-dominated districts, fears over losing land took a religious colour, fed by the discontent among the minorities brought out by the Sachar Committee report.

East Midnapore gained notoriety because of the prolonged violence in Nandigram over an aborted land acquisition attempt while South 24-Parganas will be the site for large projects to be built by the Indonesian Salim group.

In neighbouring North 24-Parganas, which the Salim road project will touch and where notices for land acquisition have been issued, the Left won by the thin margin of three, with Mamata’s score having soared from two to 16.

The results in West Midnapore, Burdwan, Bankura and Purulia, where too large tracts of land have been taken over for industry, are a warning against jumping to the conclusion that the panchayat verdict is a slap in the face of the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government’s industrialisation drive.

In all four districts, the CPM has not only won but has posted huge victories, even improving on its 2003 tally in some cases. The difference, however, is that in these four districts, there was no controversy over acquiring land.

Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee refused comment on the results.

Benoy Konar, the CPM state secretariat member who addressed the media today instead of the party’s Bengal secretary Biman Bose, said: “It will be simplistic to infer that people voted against industrialisation. We failed to convince farmers in these two districts (East Midnapore and South 24-Parganas) where people have apprehensions about losing land.”

The apprehensions overrode expectations of benefits from the showpiece Tata small-car project at Singur, where the CPM lost all three zilla parishad seats to Trinamul. In 2003, the CPM had won the three but had lost the Assembly seat to Trinamul in 2006.

If Nandigram led to the loss of East Midnapore for the CPM, the party won Hooghly, of which Singur is a part, though not with the ease of 2003. Trinamul opened its account in the district, grabbing 11 seats.

Mamata was distributing rasogollas after the results became known, finding a reason to smile after two consecutive routs in the 2004 Lok Sabha and the 2006 Assembly polls, which halved her 2001 MLA count of 60.

Jene rakhoon, etai CPM-er sesher suru (Make no mistake, this is the beginning of the CPM’s end),” she said.

“In 2003, we had only 16 zilla parishad seats. But this time we have been able to wrest not only two zilla parishads on our own but even won over 120 zilla parishad seats.”

Mamata interpreted the results as a “mandate against state-sponsored terrorism”, but added that the people had also voiced their protest against the move to “grab farmland from the poor in the name of industrialisation”.

The chief minister can expect more trouble arising out of this conclusion for his industrialisation programme. Trinamul said it would not “allow the administration to take away an inch of land from unwilling farmers”.

Although the Congress lost Murshidabad, the victory in North Dinajpur was being seen as an achievement for Priya Ranjan Das Munshi, the Union minister who had called on Congress supporters to vote for the strongest candidate in their areas, even if it meant backing Trinamul.

If this led to an informal coming together of anti-Left forces in North Dinajpur, the Left itself was bitterly divided in the district, as it was also in South 24-Parganas.