Singur: A year ago, Jharna Bhar was planning to hire a private tutor for her 12-year-old son, having already bought a mobile phone, a television set and even a refrigerator for her home with her own income.
Broken promises: A file photo of Trinamool Congress’ Mamata Banerjee at a rally outside the proposed Tata Motors factory in Singur. The factory was moved out of the state, resulting in many people losing jobs. Indranil Bhoumik / Mint
After receiving training at a hotel management institute in Kolkata for a month, 30-year-old Bhar was running a canteen for workers of Tata Motors Ltd, which was setting up a factory in Singur to manufacture the Nano, its much-hyped small car. She was earning Rs3,500 a month—almost double the pay of her husband, who worked as a security guard at the factory.
When Tata Motors pulled the plug on the project in October, after a campaign by Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress against land acquisition for the factory, it meant the loss of a prized job for Bhar and at least 300 other women who had been hired to provide services at the factory such as catering, housekeeping and tailoring.
“We were duped into thinking she was fighting for the poor,” says Bhar, who returned to a Rs400-a-month job rolling beedis, the locally made unfiltered cigarettes wrapped in tendu leaf. “She, too, is a woman…how could she do this to us?”
Banerjee returned to Kolkata. Asked when she had last visited Singur, the Trinamool Congress’ local district council member Dipankar Ghosh struggles to remember. “When was it? Was it December or January?”
Since the project was called off, Banerjee has visited Singur only once, and on that visit in early January she had told locals that she would force the state government to return 300 acres of land acquired for the project to farmers within “seven days”.
The land hasn’t been returned, nor has Banerjee returned to Singur since. Neither she nor any other top ranking Trinamool Congress leader would be campaigning in Singur, which is part of the Hooghly Lok Sabha constituency, ahead of the 7 May general election, said Rabindranath Bhattacharjee, a leader of the party and the local legislator from Singur. “The party doesn’t need her to campaign here,” said Bhattacharjee.
It was from Singur, where 12,000 farmers were forced to give up their land, that Banerjee in September 2006 launched her statewide campaign against farmland acquisition by the West Bengal government. The Left Front had just routed the Trinamool Congress in the 2006 assembly election.
The campaign intensified in January 2007, when the state government announced plans to acquire land in Nandigram in East Midnapore district for setting up a chemical hub. After police firing left at least 14 protesters dead in Nandigram on 14 March 2007, the state government beat a retreat from there, turning Singur into the epicentre of the Trinamool Congress’ campaign for farmers’ rights.
Banerjee’s fight against land seizure led to unexpected setbacks for the ruling Left Front in the panchayat, or village council, polls in May 2008. The Trinamool Congress made inroads into traditional Left bastions such as East Midnapore and South 24 Parganas, and won 15 out of 16 panchayat seats in Singur.
With renewed enthusiasm, Banerjee relaunched an agitation against Tata Motors and the state government, demanding the return of 300 acres from the 1,000-acre acquired plot, which eventually resulted in the project being moved out of Singur.
Because of the controversy, the Trinamool Congress had managed to tighten its grip on villages in Singur—an assembly constituency with 170,000 voters. The party had won the Singur assembly seat twice—in 2001 and 2006—and it is a crucial segment of the Hooghly Lok Sabha constituency, which has 1.4 million voters in all, and where the fight this time is mainly between the Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s Rupchand Pal and Trinamool’s Ratna De Nag.
But a reversal seems to have taken place in the past seven months. There’s hardly any poster or wall graffiti in Singur with Banerjee’s picture. A few posters had Banerjee’s picture conspicuously defaced, though Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s picture in the same posters had been spared.
Banerjee has in the past, too, courted controversy and been quick to distance herself from it. In January 1993, when she was still with the Congress and its representative in Parliament, she tried to storm into then chief minister Jyoti Basu’s office in Kolkata’s Writer’s Building—the headquarters of the West Bengal government—to protest the rape of a minor, deaf mute girl.
Thrown out along with the victim, she tried to lay siege to the complex on 21 July 1993, but that led to the killing of 13 Congress activists in police firing. She derived considerable public sympathy from the incident, but when the girl delivered a child at a Kolkata orphanage, there was no Congress leader, let alone Banerjee, by her side.
Banerjee, however, continues to observe a Martyrs’ Day on 21 July to pay homage to those killed on that fateful day.