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Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Why was the State administration paralysed for so long?  Obviously the Party had taken over the State and the CPM wished to restore its tattered authority

Comrades With Arms

Nandigram raises issues that must be addressed. Is this the Left’s last hurrah?

By B G Verghese

Sahara Times / New Indian Express, 13 November, 2007

The UPA’s Leftist comrades in arms have also shown themselves to be combative comrades with arms as has been demonstrated in Nandigram to nobody’s good. Nandigram erupted last March when there was allegedly unprovoked police firing on unarmed protestors, killing 14 and setting tempers afire. This followed an agitation led by the Trinamool Congress in the mistaken belief that the area was to be acquired for a chemical SEZ, an alarm triggered by an unauthorized ground survey by local authorities in the wake of land acquisition at Singur for the Tata small car project. The misapprehension was quickly dispelled by the West Bengal Government, which apologised and said no decision had been taken to locate the SEZ at Nandigram and that the populace would be consulted before any such decision was taken and no SEZ would be located there if there was any local objection. 

That should have settled the matter. Consultations showed that local opinion was opposed to an SEZ, leading the Government to announce that the Nandigram site was being formally abandoned and the proposed SEZ would be located elsewhere. Nayachar, near Sagar Island, was subsequently selected without objection. However, the SEZ issue had long since become a mere pretext to politicise the issue for which the Nandigram firing and general SEZ agitation offered an appropriate environment for critics to settle scores with the CPM-led ruling coalition.

Political opponents of the regime rallied around the Trinamool flag at Nandigram and were joined by Naxal elements eager to fish in troubled waters. Muslim landholders who felt threatened by the earlier acquisition scare also mobilised.  In the result, CPM sympathisers were forcibly driven out of Nandigram and its environs and had to seek refuge elsewhere. The BUPC or Save the Land Committee thereafter cordoned off this “liberated zone” where the writ of the state ceased to run until a week ago. Roads had been dug up and all ingress and egress barred. Even the Calcutta High Court commented adversely on this abdication by the State, ostensibly to avoid any further bloodshed. Attempts to negotiate a settlement were rebuffed. Whether time was required for the CPM cadres to regroup or patience ran out is not clear; but soon after Durga Puja, Nandigram turned into a “war zone” as lost village after village was “recaptured”, in the words of the West Bengal Governor. In a reversal of roles, CPM cadres re-established their supremacy over all others by brute force with the police sanding by.

Bengal’s pro-Left intellectuals and cultural personalities rose in protest as did the Opposition, human rights activists and, most significantly, the CPM’s own CPI, Forward Bloc and RSP partners. A bandh shut down Calcutta. A CRPF battalion sent to assist restoration of law and order was only allowed to enter the “battle zone” later. Hopefully peace, howsoever uneasy, has been restored and an impartial inquiry will be ordered to establish the facts as none in Bengal has clean hands. The matter cannot be allowed to rest with Mr Prakash Karat’s bland declaration that Mamata Bannerjee, the Trinamool leader had allied with Maoists to take over Nandigram. More likely the Maoists moved in to take advantage of the situation while the State remained supine. Even so, such liaisons are dangerous.

Why was the State administration paralysed for so long?  Obviously the Party had taken over the State and the CPM wished to restore its tattered authority so that a political and electoral message would go out loud and clear. Strong arm methods have kept the Party in power for 30 years but clearly the worm has now turned. The CPM got a taste of its own medicine and though it has “recaptured” Nandigram to win a battle it is in danger of losing the war. You cannot fool all of the people all of the time. The Party is facing an internal revolt behind a façade of unity, the ire of its coalition partners and the increasing scorn of intellectuals and impartial observers for its antiquated and destructive politics. Its trade unions and student bodies are losing ground. Hence, while huffing and puffing against the 123 Agreement to ward off America’s imperialist designs, the Comrades have been loud in proclaiming that they do not wish to bring down the UPA Government and confront the country with a mid-term poll. How kind! 

Having stalled all economic reform over the past several months through not-so-veiled threats of withdrawing support from the UPA – to which the Government has unfortunately succumbed – the CPM has established that it wants power without responsibility, even while seeking for Bengal what it would deny Delhi. Delaying negotiations with the IAEA has already led to delaying further progress with Russia and France in developing nuclear energy and ending a hurtful technology-denial regime. Delay means denial – at the cost of the Indian people and its poor who always suffer disproportionately at the end of the day.

The up-coming debate on the civil nuclear deal after Parliament reassembles on November 15 will test everybody, especially the Government. Should it waver, it may survive in office, much diminished in prestige, power and self-assurance. Let the Left and BJP – which has just patched up another unprincipled deal with the JD(S) in Karnataka – dare to pull down the Government and face the electorate. The Left may not survive the result after this, its last hurrah, while the BJP is also probably poised to lose ground with its “nationalist” pretensions and “cultural nationalism” being shown up as dangerous delusions. The middle class myth that mid-term polls are electorally wicked, economically costly and politically unwise, hawked around by all too many armchair democrats, is a piece of nonsense. The country wants and needs reform and firm governance, not dalliance.

Meanwhile it is well to remember that the Nandigram story is not singular. The same “siege” by protestors and abdication of the state has been repeated at Kalinganagar in Orissa and elsewhere to the delight of sundry activists and modern day Luddites out to oppose development, industrialisation and urbanization on ideological grounds. There are huge opportunity costs for doing nothing or too little, with a galloping population and labour force and millions of newly-empowered and awakened citizens increasingly seeking their due. The maximum we can do – sensibly – is therefore the least that we must attempt. There is no other way.     

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