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The law should eventually be restored in Lalgarh. But the question it poses for Bengal is trickier.

The law should eventually be restored in Lalgarh. But the question it poses for Bengal is trickier. Your columnist would love to be wrong on this but Bengal is probably looking at a grim political future. There are three reasons for this. The (CPM) machine is not what it used to be. Maoists are not what they used to be. Mamata Banerjee may remain what she used to be.

It will be useful to quickly recount the last big clash between the CPM and Maoists in Bengal. It came right after the CPM’s first taste of power in Bengal,in 1967,as a partner in the United Front coalition. Maoists then were ex-CPM types who left the party accusing it of insufficient radicalism. The establishment of an unviable peasant “soviet” in north Bengal’s Naxalbari and the politics of murder (“annihilation of class enemies”) were the then Maoists’ signal contributions to political praxis.

The CPM vs Maoists battle then was rooted in the question of land redistribution. The CPM had the advantage of making a fresh start. In the two periods of UF rule totalling 19 months and in the first 15 years of Left Front’s rule beginning in 1977,40 per cent of Bengal’s population received land titles.

The CPM also presided over almost a quarter century of agrarian growth,a boro rice-led jump in farm output that happened because of labour intensive cultivation in small plots. With panchayat representation giving socially-empowered middle peasantry political space and farm growth providing economic space,the CPM could ignore basic rural infrastructure as well as welfare provisioning to the very poor. It didn’t cost them too many votes.

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The CPM had an urban/ semi-urban strategy as well. Unregistered manufacturing has a huge share in total manufacturing in Bengal. Unregistered manufacturing is basically economists’/ statisticians’ code for non-farm establishments offering informal employment. This was a pool that could be and was offered the bargain of “protection” in return for political support.

These political-economic strategies were of course supplemented and in some cases made possible by the CPM’s takeover of state institutions. This then was the CPM’s machine,and it has the following problems.

First,land redistribution is an exhausted option. So,political challenges can’t be met that way anymore. Second,farm growth has petered out and the CPM’s politics makes technological changes in labour intensive/ small-plot cultivation particularly difficult. Third,because farm growth has halted,the CPM’s neglect of rural infrastructure and welfare provisioning is starting to matter. The last National Sample Survey showed a shocking 47 per cent of Bengal’s poor don’t have cards that entitle holders to subsidised food grain under various schemes. Many districts,including West Midnapore,locus of the current violence,have social and physical infrastructure indicators that compare with or are worse than those of Bihar,Jharkhand and poorer parts of Uttar Pradesh. Fourth,the CPM’s attempt to create industrial employment as a partial answer to these problems has come up against agitationist politics that draws some sustenance from this neglect. Next to Lalgarh is Salboni,the site of a proposed 10-million tonne steel plant. Salboni is a wasteland in terms of basic development,as is Lalgarh.


Fifth,because of all these factors and as election results showed,some of the CPM’s political constituencies are up for grabs and that can create de facto administrative vacuums. The party was the state and the state was the party. When the party loses considerable influence but retains formal power,a weakened state machinery can look as helpless as it did in Lalgarh. Sixth,and related to the fifth,the CPM’s capacity to meet violence with violence is now circumscribed by fears of further political setbacks.

Bengal’s problem is that all these defects in the CPM machine will stay on after Lalgarh is taken away from the Maoists. It is also that today’s Maoists,even if they are bested in Lalgarh,are different from those in the ’60s. Then,the breakaway men from the CPM led a ragtag,primitively armed bunch (spears were a frequent weapon of choice) and the leaders engaged in arcane debates about how to asses Chinese communist leaders like Lin Biao (he tried to assassinate Mao). Today’s Maoists,organised,well-armed,disciplined and operating across states,make Charu Mazumdar and his lot look like amateurs.

Bengal’s rural stasis and the CPM’s inability to provide a political-economic solution to it,plus the degradation of administrative capacity make the state’s poorest districts at least a frighteningly attractive site for Maoists. The political consequences of this are unpredictable,to put it mildly.


If Mamata Banerjee becomes a different politician,say,roughly in the Nitish Kumar mould in terms of her approach to development politics,she can be Bengal’s creatively countervailing force. But will she?

True,her current responses to Lalgarh have been less alarming than they could have been. The Trinamool seems to have been reined in for now. But Mamata is a politician looking to defeat the Left by going to its left and she is not terribly good at presenting and promoting a positive agenda. Her tactical strength comes from the ability to politically mobilise grievance.

There’s plenty of grievance in Bengal,including as yet relatively unexploited ones like those nurtured by the state’s large army of informally unemployed. A part of the CPM’s machine but restive because of the protector’s change in fortune,this army looks good for a Mamata-style attempt at mobilisation.

But if Mamata won’t or can’t convince industrial capital to invest,if she continues to falsely posit an agriculture vs industry problem — a 100 projects the size of the ex-Nano plant will take up less than 1 per cent of the state’s farm land — and if she deifies the small peasant to the extent of shutting out the possibility of change in farm production techniques,it is hard to see how she can offer solutions. If she can’t offer solutions she becomes a part of the problem defined by the machine and Maoists. And all this is assuming she scrupulously stays away from flirting with the Maoists for ground level mobilisation.

For Bengal’s future,winning back Lalgarh is necessary but nowhere near sufficient.

First published on: 19-06-2009 at 01:22 IST
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Very filmy

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