Major issues literally came pouring out into our path when I went electioneering in the Barrackpur parliamentary constituency of West Bengal with Dinesh Trivedi, the Trinamool Congress candidate, a few days ago.
The apparently massive rejection—I was going to say disenchantment but it is not a strong enough word—of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, whose Left Front government has run the state for 32 years, was expressed by many people, especially women, during three hours I spent walking around the Amdanga rural area with Trivedi.
“I wish you to win. I want peace and an end to terror,” said Arpita, an 18-year old student who will be voting for the first time on Thursday, when West Bengal goes into the second of its three election stages. “We want a peaceful election. Here people force us not to vote.” Many others expressed similar views with stories that alleged CPM threatened violence against those who would vote.
I went to West Bengal—as I did earlier in Orissa—to see if votes would be swung by clashes over the socially crucial issue of using agricultural land for industrial development. In Orissa, problems over controversial Posco, Tata and other projects seemed to have little impact in the election. Here in West Bengal, however, Tata Motors Ltd’s car factory at Singur, and plans for a chemicals special economic zone (SEZ) at Nandigram play large, along with localised issues such as demands for a separate Gorkhaland state in the north of West Bengal and police violence against tribals.
This is firstly because, unlike Orissa, these two now-abandoned development projects became, and remain, a primary battleground between the state’s two major political parties—the CPM and the Trinamool. Secondly, Singur and Nandigram showed CPM at its worst when its cadres used force to gain control and to try to force implementation of the projects. Consequently, they have provided a base for wider opposition, especially in rural areas, as was shown by the women of Amdanga.
The open way that people dared to come out of their homes to meet us seemed to illustrate a significant anti-CPM tide. Many Kolkata observers suggested the Left’s 35 Lok Sabha seats in West Bengal (out of a total of 42) will come down by about 15. An official at the CPM headquarters said it would only lose three-five, and a strong supporter said seven. The Trinamool, led by Mamata Banerjee, was tipped to be the main beneficiary, with its Congress ally benefiting less.
I heard many reports, both in Barrackpur and elsewhere, of CPM ballot rigging. Trivedi has done research that shows the party has prepared dual voter lists for this election—he has tabulated evidence of over 8,000 names—despite the introduction of electronic voting. This allegation was supported by others who said that, when they went to a booth in the past, they were turned away by officials saying “your vote has already been cast”. Other people told me that the CPM can switch perhaps 10% of the votes providing it has about 40% of the locality on its side and controls the bureaucrats in the voting booths. I was also told that two past leaders of the Congress used to be good at counter-fixing, but that they are no longer available.
It could be argued that these issues show that the general election is being fought in Bengal, as elsewhere, on local and not national concerns. That would, however, be wrong because, alongside CPM’s rough and often violent power tactics, there is the crucial national issue of how India can provide land for industrial development without the agricultural poor being deprived of their traditional livelihoods.
What happened at Singur and Nandigram, and in Orissa, underlines the urgent need to repeal the 1894 Land Acquisition Act and replace its powers of compulsory acquisition so that sharecroppers and landless labour, as well as landowners, receive adequate compensation. A way also needs to be found for these stakeholders to have some lasting investment as compensation, which cannot be quickly lost or frittered away, for losing land that has been held for generations. Secondly, governments need to note that society has changed and it is no longer possible to push through disruptive development projects such as the SEZs that were promoted without adequate policy preparation and then enthusiastically picked up by influential business groups.
There is also a lesson for political parties: you cannot expect easily to take away that which you have given. As Rajat Roy, a local journalist, pointed out to me, it was a misjudgement of CPM to believe that it could compulsorily acquire rich agricultural land from people to whom it had given that land as part of its widely-admired land reforms over the past 30 years.
CPM supporters counter this by saying that it has distributed 30,000 acres under land reforms in recent years, which far outstrips that needed by the projects, and that the government has to use some agricultural land because it accounts for 78% of West Bengal’s land area—far more than in many other states. That may be true, but the Singur and Nandigram land was part of a highly fertile belt that stretched down the state on either side of the Hooghly river.
The first major project on this rich agricultural land was a new town at Rajarhat built about nine years ago on the edge of Kolkata. This was followed by Tata’s Nano car factory at Singur, which was followed by the SEZ at Nandigram promoted by the Salim group of Indonesia. Rajarhat was built without protest, but Trinanmool’s Banerjee saw Singur as a platform for opposition in 2006. After many months of secret negotiations with Tatas, she returned to oppose the car project again at the end of 2007 when Nandigram had blown into a focal point for opposition.
Uday Basu, a veteran Statesman journalist, told me that she “cleverly turned the land grab issue into populist politics”. She had—and has—no primary policy agenda but then “hijacked the Left’s old land-for-the-poor policy”.
All this is quite a change for Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, chief minister since late 2000, who became the darling of the West in his early reformist years. Rudrangshu Mukherjee, an editor at Kolkata’s Telegraph newspaper, remembers that Henry Kissinger likened Bhattacharya to China’s great economic reformer, Deng Xiaoping, when the two met in November 2007.
Kissinger, of course, was nearer the truth than he realized because Bhattacharya clearly thought he would take over land occupied by the rural masses in the style of China’s leaders. Many people would say that this brought out CPM in its true colours. The voters of West Bengal now have a chance to pass their verdict.
Formerly with the Financial Times, John Elliott is a Delhi-based contributor to Fortune magazine and writes a blog, Riding the Elephant, at http://ridingtheelephant.wordpress.com. This is the third in a four-part series offering an outsider’s view of the biggest democratic process the world has seen. The next commentary will be on Delhi.
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