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By Despite the potential of her anti-Salim stand, Mamata Banerjee is unlikely to earn long-term dividends from it, writes Ashis Chakrabarti
  • Published 19.10.05

It would be laughable if a political party today were to organize street protests against the use of computers in public sector organizations. But Bengal?s left parties once did just that. I recall a large leftist rally outside the Reserve Bank of India office in Calcutta in the early Eighties in protest against the introduction of computers in the RBI. The computers, the protestors said, were a capitalist evil that would rob people of their jobs. The same leftists today showcase their government?s success in promoting the information technology sector.

Bengal?s leftists have come a long way since the days of anti-computers protests. If today?s younger lot want to have an idea of what the leftists did in those days, they need only to look at Mamata Banerjee?s brand of politics. Her battle against Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee?s government over the Salim group?s proposed investments in Bengal reminds me of the left?s stir against ?computerization?. Her argument is much the same as the left?s logic in those days. She is trying, as the Marxists then did, to put back the clock of history.

From hunting to agriculture to industry ? that is how the people?s livelihood has evolved through the ages. They have taken to new modes and techniques of production as these became available. Tracts of farmland gave way to industries, and farmers became workers in factories and other commercial enterprises. Farming, of course, remained a major economic activity. But how can anyone deny the importance of industrialization?

Mamata Banerjee says she is not opposed to the industrialization of Bengal. Her fight, we are told, is against the government?s move to take away land from the farmers and hand it over to the Salim group. Some partners of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in the ruling Left Front also have similar complaints. But, how was it that neither she nor other sceptics rose in defence of the farmers when new industries came up on farmers? land in Haldia or Bankura and a new township, twice the size of Salt Lake, began taking shape in Rajarhat? Would she have the same objections if it were an Indian entrepreneur, instead of the Indonesian group, that proposed to build a special economic zone in South 24 Parganas? How then was it that she raised no din when Mitsubishi Chemicals set up its plant in Haldia?

So why has she suddenly turned farmer-friendly? It is generally argued that she wants to make the Salim projects a major issue for her party?s campaign in the months leading to the assembly elections next year. Since the Lok Sabha polls last year, she and her party have had a sinking feeling. The loss of the Calcutta municipal corporation earlier this year made things even bleaker. She clearly needed an issue that could boost her morale and brighten up her horizon a bit. She thinks she has found the right stuff in the Salim episode.

But can it work? In the thick of her anti-Salim campaign came the by-elections to the Asansol parliamentary seat. Some would say that the humiliating defeat for her party in the polls was proof of her campaign making no impact. But Asansol is one Lok Sabha constituency in Bengal which has practically no rural areas within it. (Durgapur next door is an industrial constituency but has large rural segments.) So, a farmers? issue, her supporters might argue, was not expected to cause much of a ripple in Asansol.

It is possible that her campaign will have some sympathy among a section of the people. Despite her political decline, Mamata Banerjee remains the most important opposition leader in Bengal. And, there is a sizeable section of the people who will oppose the left on any issue. It is also possible that her agitation will lead to some violence that will embarrass the government and give her an opportunity to exploit it.

It is also true that perceptions, rather than facts and logic, go a long way in influencing politics and public opinion. There was little logic in the CPI(M)?s anti-computers stir or in the left?s violent movement in the Fifties against a one-paisa rise in tram fares in Calcutta. So, why can?t her anti-Salim movement succeed, despite its absurdity? If the leftists could build major movements on patently absurd issues, why can?t she?

To my mind, there are two basic reasons why she cannot. First, the times have changed so dramatically that old strategies will not work in today?s politics. Take the Salim case. Whether one likes it or not, capitalism is the only game left in every town the world over. And, no local game today can be played independent of the global game.

There are forces that occasionally fight back and try, albeit unsuccessfully, to change the rules of the game. Mamata Banerjee?s politics has no problem with the game; she just wants to remove the CPI(M) as the player and take its place. The CPI(M), on the other hand, has honed its political skills by constantly changing itself in order to play the game of the season. Salim or whoever else brings in capital for Bengal is the flavour of the season, as far as the Marxists are concerned. By contrast, Mamata Banerjee is trying to play the game by outdated rules.

Second, although she is trying to out-do the CPI(M) of yore in agitational politics, hers is a very different party. The CPI(M) has always been a regimented, cadre-based party . Popular leaders have left their mark on the functioning of the party, but even they know it is the party?s collective will that ultimately prevails. Good, bad or ugly, the party?s strategy can thus rouse the cadre into carefully calibrated mass action.

Banerjee?s is a party that is all her own. That may not necessarily be a problem for a party that draws its strength from its leader?s mass appeal. The problem for such a party is that it is too weak and loose an organization.

Even so, an issue of genuine public concern can change things drastically in politics. I have no doubt that many more people see the Salim projects as a new hope for Bengal than those who think otherwise. Whether the chief minister can turn this hope into reality is a different matter. But the fact is that new investments are coming at a pace unseen in Bengal for a long time. Anyone trying to stall such investments will now be seen as a spoiler.