Ma, Mati Manush

Mamata’s Politics – Reign of Terror Or The French Revolution?

On a rain lashed morning, hemmed in by a garbage strewn muddy road of a colony in a NCR suburb and marooned by water logged stretches of the posh South Delhi colonies of Greater Kailash and Saket, I sit interned in my modest flat thinking of my homeland, West Bengal, of the change that is brewing there, as the mild wafting breeze slowly gathers momentum into a typhoon. Mamata Banerjee, a non descript leader of the not too civil nor really cerebral political party, known as the Trinamool Congress is swarming up like the Joan of Arc to lay to cinders the citadel of the CPI(M), no less in its solidity that the Roman Empire had been. To the best of my understanding, the Bengali is averse to any kind of change and especially those that lead to a realignment in the balance of power. Hence, the CPI(M) is not going away because of an anti-incumbency, but because it has threatened the status quo. Trinamool Congress, hereafter the TMC, promises to fight against this disruption and something more. The “something more” constitutes the crux of the TMC politics, its mass base, its intellectual support and the fact that all over India, a significant section of farmers and workers are saying under their breath, only if Mamatadidi was by our side. A fair quantity of intellectuals seem to repeat what Tilak had once said about Bengal, what Bengal thinks today, the rest of India thinks tomorrow. It is irksome to many among the glitterati of Kolkata’s elite club to imagine that such a thought as the one that is swelling up into some kind of a grand critique of the present politics should emanate from a riff raff such as Mamata Banerjee. Let us therefore, observe closely what Mamata’s politics is all about.

As far as my recollection goes, the present wave started at Singur. Singur, the site of Bengal’s most fertile land and one of the few agrarian tracts which is fully irrigated supporting the bulk of potatoes and vegetables of the country as a whole, was claimed by Ratan Tata to become a hub for its automobile company. Farming, which is not too gainful an occupation after the input and utility charges like water, electricity, fuel and other consumables have increased enormously, appeared to be less lucrative than the interest income flowing out of huge money stacked away as fixed deposits in the bank. The huge money was supposed to come from the munificent compensation that the Tatas were offering in lieu of lands that supported livelihoods of farmers in that area. Many farmers found to be compensated off their land to be a god sent boon. Many however opposed and in the opposition of such farmers, grew a politics that seemed to be growing into unmanageable proportions. This is the typhoon of the Trinamool.

The Singur farmers’ resistance gave unto the Indian politics an interesting political category, the willing and the unwilling. In this case, the unwilling farmers were unwilling to give up their land, while those who were fine with compensation instead of land constituted the willing farmers. Studies on the resistance tried to understand the reasons behind the choices made by the willing and the unwilling farmers. The Nobel Laureate, Prof Amartya Sen said that industrialization was a natural progression from agriculture and hence farming had logically to make way for industries and the unwilling farmers were just being sentimental about land and fearful of a new way of life – a typical colonial construction of the Indian farmer as being ignorant, superstitious, and conservative.

There was yet another view on the farmers’ willingness to part with land which was that those who owned land but were absentee landlords wanted to sell land while those who were sharecroppers and even only landless labourers had more stake in keeping the land precisely because it were they who produced on land. This too is again rather naïve and facile and returns us to Prof Sen’s thesis that such attachment to land is therefore only habit or is sentimental or conservative and most likely all of them, in saying that those farmers who are the actual tillers of the soil are the ones who wish to continue to be in the same way. What such “class analysis” does not take into account is why should the farmer not be a rational decision maker of his own economics and why should he, in the face of an apparent possibility of a higher income through compensation not decide in favour of giving up his land? Until and unless the farmer is totally a non-rational sentimentalist who knows the price of nothing, such analysis of class does not help us understand the problem of Singur.

If we visit Singur and list in two columns the willing and the unwilling farmers, then we will have an interesting picture. Farmers on both sides will reveal very similar “external” features. Both columns will have farmers who own land, those who are landless, or sharecroppers, both sides will have the same distribution of educational qualifications, both columns will have very similar family compositions of unmarried daughters, sons who study medicine or engineering or are petty traders and civil contractors. The socio-economic and educational attributes have similar distributions for willing and unwilling farmers. Then why are they different? Only because some are non-rational sentimentalists and the rest is not? Such analysis tries to understand human behavior in terms of its correlation with factors that are outside the behavior itself. What one really has to understand is the behavior and the world view of that behavior.

Those farmers who are unwilling to sell land have an important difference with those who are willing to do so and which are that the unwilling farmers have fewer opportunities for an alternative source of income or believe that they do not have one. For the same income category, it will be observed that the farmer who is unwilling to sell land has “fallen” into this category, while the famer who is willing to sell land has “risen” into this category. Therefore, the world looks bleak for the one who has suffered a downward mobility while it looks rosy for the one who has enjoyed an upward mobility. The two farmers, even at the same level of economic prosperity conceal two directly opposite stories, namely one of decline and the other of a rising incline. The story of Singur thus divides its actors and characters into two clear divisions – one who is part of India’s shining story and the other who is not.

Yet another “calculation” guides the story of Singur and which is those farmers who wish to hold on to land are speculators and hedgers who wish to part with land only when the value of such land rises. They know that compensation, no matter how high is likely to be worn off as inflation gets the better of it and higher the amount of the present compensation, higher the inflation rate is likely to be. In such a view those who are unwilling to part with land are speculators, who do not wish to be parted of their future value of land. The politics of Singur is therefore also over the present value and the future value of land. Such a category of “unwilling” farmers constitute the stronger component of opponents to the land deal. The farmers are fighting to protect the future worth of their assets while the state is trying through forced commerce transfer this future worth of land from them to the land acquisitionists.

In contrast to the above, the willing farmers are definitely households of smaller means who desperately need the compensation money to start some business of their own. When the prospect of such a business was offered by none other than Tatas to become contractors in none other than inside the Nano factory, these farmers jumped at the prospect. The “Nano Bachao Committee” contrary to popular perception is not a CPI (M) outfit but has a motley combination of opinions and for all practical purposes is a standalone outfit. The debates within this outfit usually pertains to whether industrial employment is sustainable in the future or not and whether the local boys of Jamshedpur have benefitted from the existence of Tata Steel since four decades before Independence. The Nano Bachao Committee people speak in English, the younger ones among them dress well, and the older ones have well stocked homes with gadgets like air conditioners and cars of the latest models, the size of which would depend on the depth of their pockets. The Committee was formed when Tatas decided to leave West Bengal because Mamata Banerjee was so obstinately against development, an excuse, which all of us found at best as flimsy. Tatas finding an immediate home in Modi’s Gujarat was again too quick to be real and people smelt of an axis among the communist-communalist-capitalist.

Bengal, incidentally is one state in India where industries mean retrenched workers and locked out factories. Bengalis are the last persons to believe that industries provide jobs. At the time of Independence Bengal was India’s most industrialized state and slowly it also had the most unemployed. The USP of the CPI(M) was that it attempted to make farming somewhat profitable, but even farming had its problems of diminishing returns as villagers from all over Bengal migrated in droves to work as servants all over India. What protests in Singur did was not to suggest the merit of holding onto land but rather to cry foul over fooling people with false promises of jobs with industries. Mamata’s politics is not about farming over industry, nor about the merit of agriculture over manufacturing, but it is about exposing lies of prospects of an inclusive economic development through the policies that governments irrespective of the party in power pursue and propagate. The reason why all over India, farmers and workers are seeking “Mamatadidi” is because they have seen the great lie that is being ferreted as the truth, the lie being development that only increase private profits can also mean public gain. Mamata’s politics is about this huge schism in the country that divides India again after the Partition, into constituencies of those who are aligned with the small base of capitalism and those who must remain outside the pale and slowly decay to death.

Mamata’s politics could never have reached the zenith that it has done had not the intellectuals and an increasing number of the literati also seen the point. There is a steady rise among her supporters in the media, in cinema, in the FM radio and of course in the academe, not only in Bengal but everywhere in the country, openly stating the divide in India, acknowledging the existence of two Indias with the uncomfortable realization that the middle class will also, in time know of decadence that has been known so far to the poor. Mamata makes us realize that all is not so well with us and this is her politics. She does not promise stable governments, sensible ministers, honest workers and clean bureaucrats; we are not certain of what her victory will bring for us for all it might be the Reign of Terror without the French Revolution. But as of now she is the Joan of Arc.

About secondsaturn

Independent Scholar. Polymath.
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