If India’s political, administrative and security bosses believe that the February kidnapping of two government officials in Malkangiri district of Orissa by Maoists, and their subsequent release after the state government agreeing to a few demands will set a precedent, they are correct. But to my mind, such actions are likely to be driven not so much by governments giving in—Orissa agreed to release one mid-level Maoist leader and offered empty promises on policy to uplift the lot of villagers and tribal folk—but by Maoists taking the battle from skirmishing and recruiting to applying the squeeze in yet another way.

To use a business analogy, Maoists, now under considerable pressure on account of counter measures by the central government and several state governments, must go ever more lateral to survive.

Also Read Sudeep Chakravarti’s earlier columns

The approach isn’t a surprise. Several strategy-and-tactics documents of the erstwhile Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) People’s War, and the entity it merged into in 2004, the Communist Party of India (Maoist), point to the necessity of reaching out in every possible manner to recruit cadres in cities to feed both logistics needs and the People’s Liberation Guerilla Army.

These documents also speak of the need to build alliances with civil society groups (already and visibly in play), and infiltrate police, paramilitary and administrative machineries. Basically, work to build capacities to spread and consolidate the rebellion in rural areas and, whenever practicable, break into urban India.

If anything, Maoist rebels are aware of their weakened position after several arrests and deaths of key leaders and several cadres over the past two years. They are also acutely aware of the overwhelming numbers-superiority that India’s police and paramilitary present. Though home minister P. Chidambaram only weeks ago acknowledged at a security forum Maoists as a still-potent force, and despite repeated announcements by defence minister A. K. Antony and army brass that India’s Armed Forces won’t engage the rebels, the decision to move several hundred soldiers ostensibly for training near a key rebel stronghold in Chhattisgarh must seem to Maoists as a poised sledgehammer.

In this situation, hitting back can assume the form it did in Malkangiri. The cornering and kidnapping of officials of the administration and using captured police and paramilitary as bargaining chips to free jailed Maoist cadre and leaders and score propaganda points seems more likely than ever in this crunch situation.

There could also be an escalation of this modus operandi to include executives of business engaged in mining, metals, and power—or businesses in the process of acquiring land for such projects. Indeed, I would be surprised if such instances do not occur in Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Jharkhand where some riotously controversial land acquisition and resettlement methods are under way. And, in states such as Andhra Pradesh, which on 28 February saw police killing two villagers protesting the setting up of a power plant in Srikakulam district. It would be quite easy for rebels to hit executives of such projects to gain “pro-people" propaganda points and the release of jailed comrades.

This is, of course, a step up from the relatively lower level functioning of what I call the Red Economy—to differentiate the rebel economy from India’s legit and deeply Black economies—which functions largely from “donations" from local, contractor-led businesses in a range of activities from timber to minor road and bridge projects and even loan recovery for vehicles, in several zones where Maoist rebels hold sway. This works on the principle of pay-and-prosper, not the ideology and tactic-driven play of, say, a kidnap or hijack.

The thing is, such a play could quickly spiral out of control, as it did so dramatically in Assam during the heyday of the United Liberation Front of Asom in the 1990s and early 2000s when extortion was common currency. Non-payment by businesses—including some of India’s blue chips—could lead to the death of an executive.

A splintering of the Maoist rebellion into various factions—in north and central Jharkhand this is already a reality—and battles over areas of influence can morph ideology—and tactic-oriented actions to quickly escalate into an extortion racket for the simple expedient of cash flow. This is the nature of movements that are either corrupted, or squeezed for space and funds. While even India’s rulers won’t in private claim that the Maoist rebellion is unalterably corrupted, there is little doubt that it certainly is cornered. And desperation is as good a trigger as any.

Sudeep Chakravarti is the author of Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country. This column, which focuses on conflicts that directly affect business, is his last, as Sudeep leaves to accept a full-time media assignment.

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