Friday, October 17, 2008


The theme of a Durga Puja pandal this year in the Sealdah area. It featured the facades of two factories - one old and the other new, garlanded by a huge chain and lock, and the "Nata Mano" - "the short man"? Now I wonder who that is?

The reason the Tata Nano car project has opted out of Bengal's Singur is ostensibly, as the Scion put it, “the agitation by Mamata Banerjee”. Okay. Fair enough. Her brand of disruptive, constantly 'opposing' vis-a-vis Opposition politics is not really favoured by most people. Her single-minded agenda to somehow grab the headlines and stay within sight (and sound) of the electorate who can, as she well knows, easily trash her sooner than she likes, has caused what one newspaper screamed, was the “death of hope”, a “bullet into Bengal's soul”.

Does it mean the other 'lesser' industrialists, entrepreneurs, and assorted capitalists who have invested heavily here are not to be considered as contributing to the over-all development and progress of Bengal? When did Tata suddenly become the sole saviour of this state's “resurgence”? How is it that the ruling majority political party, who not too long ago, intentionally created conditions that ensured the withdrawal of big industry and business from Bengal, are now being appreciated for “the support that the government gave us and the facilitation that they provided”? Quote unquote, Ratan Tata. Joke mara kya?

The same newspaper mentioned above also fears that “West Bengal will continue to sink into the quicksand [sic] into which the state's politicians put it way back in the Sixties”. Nevertheless, and you have to hand it to Mamata Banerjee that despite her dense intellectual abilities and obvious lack of any game plan (other than headline grabbing), she has instinctively understood that much more is afoot than one sees on the surface. Although I do believe I am being kind to her.

Even today, the Communists who rule Bengal are a house divided. While Tata is feted, other big investors are discouraged or subjected to prolonged delays. Then again small businesses, farmers, fisher-folk, workers, and a huge populace of ordinary citizens have been displaced, abandoned, ignored, mistreated, threatened, and generally dealt badly with by these very same Communists over three decades. However, their mutual objective despite their many shades, has been to gain a complete stranglehold of absolute power through any means possible, usually by terrorising, and when they feel munificent, through agitation.

So I have my own vision of a future scenario, or two.

One. The next general elections are a mere two years away. And like always, and in keeping with their favourite colour, the Communists must then come up smelling roses. Their initial land reforms policy from which some good did come, mainly from their legalisation of the bargadar system and their revolutionary land redistribution methods, also created a very efficient and monstrous system of corruption at all levels. Over the years this has actually caused the ruin of farmers and small land-holders, and once again re-vested power (and valuable resources) in the hands of the few and the wealthy. With the Communists no longer able to deliver anything other than empty promises in rural, agricultural Bengal, they have no option but to now push for “industrialisation” and what must necessarily be a shift to urbanisation. In fact, their public relations machinery has even coined a motto that succinctly reflects this new, 'progressive', 'resurgent' thinking: “Farming is our legacy, industry is our future”.

The Tata Nano car project would have been the biggest industrial project to come up in Bengal since the Reds came to power in 1977. I have no doubt that it would have led to a better socio-economic situation for us citizens in some ways. However, the recent Singur affair or fiasco where none of the interested parties backed off or compromised, and endlessly manipulated common folk who have lost the most, seems to me to be a very clearly thought out, long-term strategic move.

Imagine the official PR machinery of the rulers going to town in a few days with dejection and despondency and the humble attitude of “we did our best, what more could we have done?”. The Industries Minister has started the ball rolling by saying, “I don't feel like living in Bengal”. Mainline media have already identified scapegoats to lynch so that they can justify plunging advertising revenues they would have certainly, and optimistically forecast for themselves a year ago.

Imagine a huge section of urban voters, traditionally anti-Left, instantly swing back to vote Red in sympathy and empathy. Imagine a large section of rural voters who had the courage to oppose the Commies in the recent Panchayat elections find that their land has no value once again, revert to vote for the Left. And you have the perfect formula for another staggering win for the Communists at the hustings in two years!

If you feel like extending your imagination a little further, imagine that the Opposition is very much a cog in the well-oiled wheel of corruption whereby they are encouraged and incentivised by the Reds to maintain their opposing stance and allow the humble Left to once again emerge victorious in the polls. And when this eventually happens, the Tatas return to Bengal with new terms and favours. From what looks like a lose-lose situation currently, it becomes a win-win situation for all.

Alternative scenario: (This is played in fast forward mode compared to the above scenario.) Public opinion is swayed by the despondency and dejection being enacted on live television and hot-off-the-press dailies as the Tatas and their ancillary units begin to pack and move. Not a very happy, shubho Puja for all. Mamata sulks and retreats to a corner as usual. Opportunities seen in capitalist dreams of the proletariat are bursting like soap bubbles. In any case, the forcibly acquired, meagrely compensated, and disputed land in question at Singur is useless for agriculture any more as it has been completely covered with fly ash to facilitate the Nano factory construction. The Red rulers once again appeal to Tata with the added voice of “public opinion”. Mr Tata does a magnanimous about-turn and returns to renegotiate. (In fact, the way things are going in Sanand, the alternative Nano factory may not happen there either.) The Left having learned a bit of a lesson (not too much), deal more maturely this time keeping the coming elections in mind. All of a sudden, things are looking up again.

One cannot ignore the fact that if the Nano is to be a successful small and cheap ($2000) car it has to be first in the market with the ability to flood it in the next year or so. The Tata's competitors are not exactly sitting back and wondering how things will be. They are certainly working on their own versions. All the alternative manufacturing sites available to the Tatas either do not have adequate infrastructure or require huge new investments and longer time periods so production cannot start so fast. The bare fact is that Singur is already there and already heavily invested in by them.

I believe the Tatas are not yet ready with their Nano. They are also not equipped with the necessary environment and other clearances they need to sell the car in foreign markets, especially Europe where there is much dismay and strong opposition to the Nano which is viewed as a potential hazard. They have conveniently used Mamata's stupid agitation to gain time and save face. This time, the Opposition is granted the victory of some more rural seats in the general elections so they can crow about how farmer-friendly they are and at the same time save face too. Again, win-win for all.

We live in interesting times, don't we?

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