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Mainstream, Vol XLIX, No 9, February 19, 2011

Letter From Kolkata: Mamata, Rajarhat and Pre-election Scene

Monday 21 February 2011, by Amitava Mukherjee

Sometime back Andre Beteille, the renowned sociologist, had described Mamata Banerjee, the Trinamul Congress supremo, as a phenomenon in Indian politics. Beteille did not advance many reasons but laid stress on the most important one which puts Mamata above many Indian politicians. His argument was that several Indian politicians have found their feet with help from either godfathers or godmothers or from their own families. Examples come to our mind immediately. Indira Gandhi was chosen for the post of the Prime Minister mainly because she was Jawaharlal Nehru’s daughter. Rajiv Gandhi became the Prime Minister by dint of being the son of Indira Gandhi. The Congress presents a pathetic picture of morbid family-oriented politics. Even the regional parties are not immune to this syndrome. Mayawati had Kansiram while Jayalalitha had M.G. Ramachandran.

Beteille has distinguished Mamata by the simple logic that the Trinamul Congress chief had no such prop and yet she has been able to carve a niche for herself in Indian politics. Another very important aspect is that while almost the entire gamut of the Communist leadership comes from the dhoti-kurta-clad middle and upper middle class background, Mamata’s family represents the downtrodden in Indian society, if not by caste, but certainly by economic yardstick. Her father was a freedom fighter but that did not result in any financial prosperity for his family after independence. This is also in stark contrast to the financial rejuvenation of the families of many Marxist leaders of West Bengal after three decades of Left Front rule. Failure to become an ICS was painful. It is also understandable that Rajani Palme Dutt, the British Communist leader, then appeared with the balm of communism to ease that pain. But even then the future remains uncertain and one has to struggle for a large part of one’s life. But life has its ups and downs. The goddess of luck starts smiling and the progeny makes hay while the sun shines.

Election is approaching in West Bengal and Mamata Banerjee is now the central figure in the State’s political landscape. Beteille’s description of Mamata as a phenomenon raises several questions too. The Trinamul Congress chief herself admits that she is not vastly educated. In the same breadth she accepts the fact that she is not at ease with English, the language of the middle and upper middle class. Then how could she achieve such a soaring acceptance in Kolkata and other cities of West Bengal in the last Lok Sabha and Kolkata Municipal Corporation elections, particularly in the wake of the fact that the CPM had tried to project the withdrawal of the Tatas from the Nano project in Singur as a setback to the dreams and aspirations of the State’s educated middle class? The answer lies in the fact that the middle class, or at least the overwhelming section of it, no more believes in the words of the Communists and they have now come round to the view that the betterment of their lot is umbilically connected with the betterment of the rural people’s conditions.

In a word, dancing to the tune of international finance capital has now become the bane of the Communists in India. So far as West Bengal is concerned, slips from the right path had started just after the first Left Front Government had taken charge when the Jyoti Basu-led Ministry had decided to engage private consultants in various development works bypassing its own engineering departments. It will not be correct to say that bonhomie with private capitalists began with the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee-led administration. Jyoti Basu had given a start to it deviating from the Communists’ long cherished policy of aligning with the poor. He also felt no qualms of conscience in embracing globalisation’s prescription of massive urbanisation at the expense of poor agriculturists as is now seen from the developments over the Rajarhat town-ship The difference with Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee lies in the fact that the latter seems to have developed a sense of mad rush for urbanisation and capitalist development. That ‘Operation Barga’, the flagship programme of the Left Front meant to ameliorate the conditions of the rural poor, was left half complete was due to this lack of conviction. The hard fact is that the Communists of Bengal had developed a propensity of allying with the middle and rich peasantry that had switched its allegiance from the Congress to the CPI-M in particular.

How far can Mamata go from here? Her party is now in control of two zilla parishads and a large number of gram panchayats and panchayat samities. It must be admitted that so far as the performance-sheet is concerned, Trinamul Congress has been performing better than the Left Front. At the same time there are instances when Trinamul panchayat members have been found to be in neck-deep corruption. On the whole the performance of the Left and Trinamul in the panchayat administration is all set to lend credence to the allegation made by J.M. Lyngdow, the former Chief Election Commissioner, that the panchayats are the sources of large scale corruption in our country. How would Mamata cope with it if she comes to power? This is the million dollar question on which her survival as an alternative to Left politicians would depend. It will go a long way in further establishing her credibility if she chooses to drastically cut down the importance and relevance of the panchayat system and again hand over powers to the bureaucracy. Even the Left Front has realised this at a very late stage in their stint and it has decided to restore much of the powers of the officialdom at the BDO level. But Mamata has collected around her a group of people who once enjoyed important positions in the State bureaucracy and sang paeans for the Left Front Government’s rural development programmes which are now out to destroy the very foundation of Left politics in West Bengal. Will she be misled again?

BUT this does not detract from the credit already due to her. From Singur to Nandigram and then to Rajarhat, Mamata Banerjee has consistently championed the cause of the poor braving all kinds of attacks, innuendos, invectives and falsehoods thrown against her by vested interests. So far as the latest case of Rajarhat township is concerned, she must share a certain amount of blame for acting late. The Trinamul leadership might cite the example of Tanmay Mandal, a former party MLA from Rajarhat, who has been expelled from the party on the charge of colluding with the State Government in the alleged forcible occupation of fertile agricultural land from farmers. But even that expulsion came very late.

This delay shows the loose organisational structure of the Trinamul Congress. In most cases the West Bengal Government has taken recourse to one stratagem—by a notification it prohibits sale and purchase of land in any geographical location where it intends to carry out ‘development’. A poor farmer who often discharges much of his social responsibilities (like marrying off his daughter or performing the obsequial rites of his parents) by selling portions of his land thus finds himself in a tight corner. Ultimately he agrees to hand over his land either to the government or to any development agency or to local musclemen against whatever price is offered. However, land sharks are secretly provided advance information of such ban and they buy up huge amounts of land outside the banned area which also fetch huge profits after the ‘development’, an euphemism for real estate boom, is carried out. The Trinamul has been alleging that this is what happened in Rajarhat.

Gautam Deb, the Housing Minister who is also the Chairman of the Housing Infrastructure Development Corporation (HIDCO), has countered this by saying that the farmers have given land on their own volition. However, eyebrows were raised when he himself, seemingly unable to withstand the heat brought on him by the Trinamul, admitted that some mistakes might have been committed during land acquisition. But the most serious aspect of the Trinamul’s allegation is that farmers have been forced to part with their lands at gunpoint. Saugata Roy, the Union Minister of State for Urban Development, has named some thugs of the area who, according to his allegation, intimidated the farmers.

Saugata Roy is a Central Minister. His allegation carries weight and should be properly investigated. But long before the Trinamul Congress came into the picture, the issue of Rajarhat caused schism in the local CPI-M unit. Quite a few pamphlets, brought out by some persons known to be CPI-M activists of the area, were in circulation. These pamphlets, carrying details of alleged tortures and intimidation of the farmers and also sudden disappearance of some of those who had vehemently protested, were sent to the newspaper houses and promi-nent personalities of Kolkata. Except one vernacular daily no other newspaper of the city cared to publish the item. The State Government’s stand is that all these allegations are instances of falsehood.

Here lies the conundrum. If Mamata’s agitation over Rajarhat gains mass support, with massive turn-outs in each of her meetings in the locality pointing in this direction, then a certain section of the middle class, albeit minuscule, will be at the receiving end. However, the Union Railway Minister’s graph of acceptability with the middle and upper middle class has been showing a continuous upward swing. In the last Kolkata Municipal Corporation election the CPI-M had tried to woo the middle and upper middle class voters of the city by making an issue of the exit of the Nano project of the Tatas from Singur. But it backfired completely and the Trinamul Congress got nearly seventy per cent of the seats.

At the same time it must not be overlooked that Mamata’s, as well as the State’s poor people’s, enemy is a very small section of the middle class that has got vested interests in the continuation of the status quo. This kind of interest is often represented by a mass circulated vernacular daily of Kolkata whose owners had plans to launch a newsprint factory in cooperation with a comprador capitalist who used to dish out many ideas of mega projects in West Bengal. Then there is that fire-spewing and dhoti-kurta-clad great revolutionary of the city who refers to Mamata by calling her ‘that woman’ or ‘that lady’. This revolutionary, whenever criticised in newspapers or journals, does not muster sufficient courage to write rebuttals but sends his henchmen to the editors to send his ‘ message’ across against the columnist. There are many other examples. They consider themselves important without realising that the canvas is too big for them.

The Congress and the Left are both nervous at the turn of events. The Congress-led UPA is now in complete doldrums over the 2G spectrum allocation scandal. The Congress’ moral authority to rule has considerably diminished. The results of the Bihar election have dealt a crushing blow to the credibility of both Sonia and Rahul. That the Congress is now a party of political novices is amply clear from the silly comments some of its leaders are making towards Mamata on the issue of alliance for the coming Assembly election. The Congress’ calculation is that the Trinamul Congress cannot win the Assembly poll on its own, sans an alliance with the Congress. A Central Congress leader known to be extremely close to the CPI-M has been pulling strings from behind to vitiate the atmosphere of camaraderie between the Trinamul and West Bengal Congress. In various inner-party meetings Mamata has disclosed her dislike for this rootless Congress leader who is in fact trying to ruin the State Congress through some of his henchmen.

But the Congress is as good as dead in West Bengal. It is not only the CPM and Left Front which are faced with political irrelevance, but the Congress too faces the threat of obliteration in West Bengal if it overestimates its strength.

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