Friday, October 24, 2008

Mamata Banerjee stamps out West Bengal's faint light of hope

Happy Durga Puja, Mamata Banerjee

Coffee Break/ Kanchan Gupta

It wasn't a lachrymose but a disappointed Ratan Tata who on Friday announced the "unfortunate and painful" decision of Tata Motors to pull out of West Bengal and shift its Nano project from Singur to a State not blessed by the presence of Ms Mamata Banerjee and plagued by her antediluvian politics. Nor was Mr Tata being needlessly melodramatic when, recalling his earlier declaration that he was determined to stay put in Singur and would not move out even if a gun were to be pointed at his head, he said, "I think Ms Banerjee pulled the trigger." Questions have been raised in the past as to whether the often-violent agitation led by Ms Banerjee, which has forced the Tata Group to abandon its Rs 1,500 crore project and dampened investor confidence in West Bengal, was entirely sustained by her grit and the brawn of Trinamool Congress supporters. By reiterating that a business rival may have funded the anti-Nano agitation, Mr Tata has revived those questions. Ms Banerjee will no doubt wave the slur away as no more than a canard to discredit her, but that won't silence her critics, of whom there are many -- the majority does not necessarily support the CPI(M).

Ms Banerjee's reaction to Tata Motors' formal decision to shift the Nano project, which was to have been the showpiece of 'New Bengal' meant to enthuse potential investors, out of Singur has been predictable. "It hardly matters to us. It is a joint gameplan of the CPI(M) and the Tatas to leave ... The allegation that our agitation was violent is bogus," she told her faithful. Only they would believe such bunkum -- there cannot be a "joint gameplan" because neither the CPI(M) nor the Tata Group stands to gain from Friday's decision; as for the agitation not being violent, it's her claim versus hard evidence to the contrary. But Ms Banerjee is being truthful when she says "it hardly matters to us". She and her party, as well as the rag-tag coalition of Naxalites past their revolutionary prime and Ford Foundation-funded subversives with whose help she has succeeded in 'pulling the trigger' not only on Mr Tata but also West Bengal's future, loathe the very idea of industrialisation and its concomitant prosperity for the masses. If the poor would cease to be poor, compulsive and professional agitators would find themselves twiddling their thumbs far away from the glare of television cameras. That's not a very happy prospect for either Ms Banerjee or those who mimic Arundhati Roy.

It could be argued that perhaps Mr Tata has been too hasty, that he should have been more pragmatic and cut a deal with Ms Banerjee. After all business, like politics, is about being sensitive to local realities and making compromises. Kalimati would not have become Jamshedpur had Sir Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata been impatient and impractical. His correspondence with his sons, Sir Dorab Tata and Sir Ratan Tata, bears testimony to his insistence that enterprise cannot be devoid of the human factor. In the closing decades of the 19th century, Sir Jamsetji believed that India's poverty was not on account of its lack of abilities but due to the lack of opportunities, and he set himself to the task of creating those opportunities. More than a century later, Mr Ratan Tata can claim that he too believes -- or should it be believed? -- West Bengal's poverty is not on account of the Bengalis' lack of abilities but due to the lack of opportunities, and that he tried to create those opportunities through the now-abandoned Nano project. No, it's not about altruism alone -- Sir Jamsetji never lost sight of profits; there is no reason why his descendant should be indifferent to the profit motive. Unlike many other entrepreneurs who couldn't give a damn about shareholders, Mr Tata has repeatedly asserted that he has to be mindful of their interests.

And it is this insistence on not short-changing those whose money is at stake -- shareholders, financial institutions and the Tata Group -- that forced him to take the "painful decision" to opt out of Singur. Persisting with the project would have meant dealing with agitators and those who revel in fomenting discontent; a settlement with the few farmers who have held out was no guarantee of peace in the future. Like Banquo's ghost, Ms Banerjee's shadow would have loomed large on Singur for a long time to come. More importantly, despite the efforts of a goody-two-shoes Governor to broker a settlement and a recalcitrant CPI(M) willing to climb down from its high papier-m?ch? horse, a deal really was impossible to achieve, made doubly impossible by Ms Banerjee's insistence that either she should have her way or Tata Motors should pack up and leave. The last of the farmers holding out against the West Bengal Government's compensation package had agreed to a land-for-land deal along with enhanced monetary compensation. Ms Banerjee would have nothing of it: She insisted that they must be returned their land. That, Mr Tata said, was not possible because it would scupper the project, being set up on 600 acres of land, which was dependent on dedicated vendor units located in its close proximity on the remaining 397 acres of land. That's how Nano remains cheap. Ms Banerjee was not interested in a solution; she wanted to celebrate the departure of Tata Motors as her victory over big capital, just as CPI(M) leaders had celebrated every time an industrial unit was shut down and workers rendered jobless in the 1960s and 1970s -- by the 1980s, there were no more factories left to shut down and West Bengal's economy had shrunk to Burrabazar. So, the Nano project had to go.

Thereby hangs the tragic tale of West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee's ambitious plan to rejuvenate industry and attract investors. Despite his emotive slogan of 'Do It Now' and valiant efforts to refashion West Bengal's moribund economy by forcing a shift from agriculture to industry, Mr Bhattacharjee is now left looking as pathetic and pitiful as his favourite poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. His predecessor and veteran Marxist Jyoti Basu, I am sure, is smirking. The man who is responsible for turning West Bengal into a sprawling industrial wasteland was aghast at the thought of industry returning to the disinherited State. With Tata Motors pulling out and potential investors signalling their intention to look elsewhere, he can now rest easy -- his legacy shall remain untouched, undented. Neither Mr Basu nor Ms Banerjee could have hoped for a happier Durga Puja as the faint flicker of hope is extinguished in homes across West Bengal.

AGENDA | Sunday Pioneer, October 5, 2008

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