It will soon be a year since a spectacular series of attacks against paramilitary forces in Chhattisgarh exposed dislocated communication between security agencies in the states, and the flaws in random, drag-and-drop deployment of ill-prepared troops to combat guerillas as wily as the Maoist rebels have proven to be.

Going by the scale of attacks from 2008 to the first half of 2010, it has been relatively quiet these past months. And even quieter since the death of party spokesperson and senior politburo member Azad, or Cherukuri Rajkumar, in a staged encounter in Andhra Pradesh last July; Azad being one among several leaders killed or jailed. There have been reverses on the ground, too, in the western districts of Bengal; and rebels have been bludgeoned back into the stronghold sanctuary of Dandakaranya that spans Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra. Maoist journals have slowed their publication—for instance the Maoist Information Bulletin hasn’t put out an issue since July. A Maoist call in January to protest against the arrest and sentencing of activist Binayak Sen, among other things calling him “comrade"—a fact gleefully twisted out of context by the prosecution to signal Sen’s guilt—served only to secure the notion of an organization on the defensive if not on the run, its propaganda blunted along with armed intent. This is further spurred by a greater degree of intelligence sharing and operational planning by Central paramilitary and police of various states.

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It is beyond dispute that the current cycle of extreme leftwing rebellion has not been pushed to the wall as it has now. But it’s way too soon for a write-off, and that endorsement came from a surprisingly even-handed home minister P. Chidambaram during a meeting to discuss internal security with chief ministers a little over a fortnight ago in New Delhi, when he called the battle “a kind of a stalemate", in which neither state government nor Maoists could be said to have gained the upper hand. “There have been casualties on both sides," he said.

This state of play is often misunderstood or tragically misrepresented by, say, shrill network anchors and shriller guests intent on a quick voice-kill of any rebellion by the dual needs of spin and instant judgement. Except for such pundits, few observers deny that the rebellion will reach out to more recruits in both rural and urban areas; consolidate their areas of operation; try to increase revenue to purchase arms and ammunition, instead of largely relying on ambush or loot to procure these; and develop levels of leadership.

Indeed, the expectation is for Maoists to become more elusive as they attempt to counter intelligence and operational penetration by security agencies. The rebellion will in the immediate future become more “guerilla"—keener on consolidation than the rapid growth that has characterized leftwing extremism for the past decade. I believe both sides are now being more deliberate, more cautious, and spectacular confrontation will not take place unless there is a good chance of success; or there is a great need to prove a point.

At the chief ministers’ conference, Chidambaram spoke of the People’s Liberation Guerilla Army, the principal striking arm of the CPI (Maoist), having added significant numbers across 2010—estimated at several hundred—to compensate for lost cadres. This is not the body language of a group about to give up.

Skirmishes over the past couple of weeks in Jharkhand, Orissa and Chhattisgarh have proven that the Maoists have a sting in the tail.

Maoists have for some time been nosing around the new industrial and mining belts of Jharkhand and Orissa, but an incident in Chhattisgarh in early February should serve as an indicator of the future. Rebels blew up an under-construction police post near the Chitrakot waterfalls area, not far from Tata Steel’s intended 5.5 million tonnes per annum steel project. Rebels left pamphlets declaring opposition to the project, which typically involves tribal land. The procedure could be repeated at Bhansi, south of Dantewada town, where Essar Steel has planned a large project.

These industrial touch points will provide tinder when political touch points diminish. Then again, one is looming: assembly elections in West Bengal, where Maoists and other extreme leftwing factions may make loud statements as the open, messy conflict between the incumbent Left-Front government and the aggressive Trinamool Congress create more pools of negative energy for rebels to wade into. And the lull into 2011 could be ended.

Sudeep Chakravarti writes on issues related to conflict in South Asia. He is the author of Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country. He writes a column alternate Thursdays on conflicts that directly affect business.

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