If there was any doubt about Union railway minister Mamata Banerjee’s sympathies with the Maoists, she dispelled them on Monday in Lalgarh, a Maoist hotbed in West Bengal.
It was a difficult performance for Banerjee but one that she managed with aplomb. In the course of her speech at Lalgarh, she said she was in favour of negotiations between Maoists and the government. She also said she opposed killings by Maoists and would oppose violence of that kind. It was a different matter that she had ample support from the Left extremists: both the People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities and Maoist leader Mallojula Koteswara Rao alias Kishenji lent support to her.
All this is, to put it differently, incongruous. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has on more than one occasion called Maoists the biggest threat to the country’s national security. Yet here is a minister who sympathizes with them, if not supports them openly. This is not symbolic support: It emboldens a set of people who do not believe in democratic politics, but espouse the use of violence to overthrow elected governments. It sets a terrible precedent for governance in India.
That is one facet of the dismal situation in West Bengal. The other more troubling aspect is that this will not be the first time when a mainstream political party has tried to ride the tiger of extremism to power. In the 1980s, another party tried the same trick in Punjab with Sikh militants. A similar experiment, with different objectives, was carried out with Tamil militants. In both cases the results were disastrous: Punjab, and the country at large, had to face a “lost decade” from 1984 to 1994. In the other case, former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated.
Banerjee may ride the tiger all the way to the Writers Buildings, but the trouble is in dismounting it. There is no successful way to do so: The Maoists will demand what cannot be conceded, at least no functional Union government will agree to. If she’s lucky, Banerjee will escape with a few bruises. Otherwise the costs, both for her, and more importantly, for West Bengal, will be very high. Though it is too late in the day for her to reconsider her politics, in calmer moments she should ponder over the consequences of her actions.
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