Kolkata: In an ominous sign that the simmering farmland acquisition issue is influencing voters, the Left Front, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, on Wednesday lost panchayat polls in four districts of West Bengal, including East Midnapore, which was in focus last year after villagers agitated over the setting up of a chemical hub in Nandigram.
Though the Left Front is set to bag 13 out of the 17 zila parishads, the trend saw opposition parties making inroads into traditional Left bastions such as East Midnapore and South 24 Parganas, suggesting the forthcoming Lok Sabha election won’t be a cakewalk for CPM. And this in turn could have a cascading effect on the party’s national ambitions, which in 2004 turned kingmaker at the Centre by lending support to the ruling United Progressive Alliance.
In 2003, the Left Front had won all but two of 17 zila parishads in West Bengal. It has lost two more this year, and those—East Midnapore and South 24 Parganas—are districts where people feel threatened by the government’s industrialization drive. The Left Front faced a complete rout in trouble-torn Nandigram, where it lost 49 out of 60 panchayat samiti seats for which results were announced at the time of printing this newspaper.
In Singur, too, where the government acquired 997 acres for Tata Motors Ltd’s small-car unit, the state’s principal opposition party Trinamool Congress swept the polls, winning all three zila parishad seats there, though CPM regained the Hooghly zila parishad with huge majority. The zila parishad is the highest decision-making body in a district.
West Bengal’s chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee had previously said the panchayat polls were a referendum on industrialization. “I have faith in your wisdom. Your opinion will go a long way in shaping the future of this state,” Bhattacharjee had said addressing a rally in Singur a day before polling started. He had said that the upcoming Tata Nano factory would create 6,000 new jobs, but the polls turned out to be a referendum on land acquisition, and those who were forced to sell land for the project voted to show their displeasure.
In Dankuni, too, where the state government is set to acquire land for a 4,840-acre township to be built by DLF, the CPM lost both the zila parishad seats to the Trinamool Congress.
Singur and Dankuni are in Hooghly, which has traditionally been a CPM stronghold. In 2003, the Left Front had won all 47 zila parishad seats in the district, but this year, it lost 10 and was trailing in two seats till reports last came in. “Though we haven’t won the zila parishad in Hooghly, the fact that we managed to win a few seats there is deeply satisfying,” said the state’s principal opposition leader Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress.
In South 24 Parganas, where the state government is planning to acquire land for building a road to connect the proposed chemical hub, the Left Front lost the zila parishad for the first time since 1978. North 24 Parganas, too, where the government proposes to acquire land for the same road, witnessed a close fight, but the Left Front won by a slender margin.
“The results are an indication that the people of Bengal do not support state-sponsored terrorism in the name of industrialization,” said Trinamool chairperson Banerjee.
Top Left Front leaders in the state admitted that the results in East Midnapore and South 24 Parganas were unexpected. Even on Wednesday morning, CPM was sure of winning in these two districts, said the party’s central committee member Benoy Konar. “But now we realize that we had distanced ourselves from our people. They have misunderstood our efforts and have moved away from the party. But to say that we did badly in the election because of farmland acquisition and our drive for industrialization is simplistic,” he added.
However, Konar, who heads the CPM’s peasants wing, All India Krishak Sabha, in West Bengal, maintained that his party wouldn’t go back on its promise to promote industries in the state.
CPM could seek consolation from the fact that it won with overwhelming majority in districts such as Purulia, Bankura, Burdwan and West Midnapore, where a number of steel companies have set up factories and many more are looking to come. But so far, there’s never been any dispute over land acquisition in these districts. “In my view, the CPIM’s attempt to industrialise Bengal is driven by the demands of wealthy farmers— particularly from districts such as Burdwan and Nadia— who do not want to be farmers anymore. But for poorer people, this new ideology means little or nothing,” said Abhirup Sarkar, professor of economics at the Indian Statistical Institute.