Daya Varma and Vinod Mubayi


The acquisition of farmland near Kolkata by the Left Front government for an automobile manufacturing plant to be owned and operated by the Tatas (one of India’s largest industrial groups) has caused an unprecedented, if not totally unexpected, stir against the West Bengal government, in particular, its leading entity the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPM. Ranged against this decision of the Left Front government is a very wide and diverse array of groups from the extreme left, i.e. those who consider themselves left of CPM, to the extreme right, like the Bharatiya Janata Party, along with regional “sore loser” politicians like Mamata Banerjee, various shades of Gandhians, environmentalists, and those who consider themselves India’s conscience keepers.


It is therefore worth attempting to understand what lies behind the anger which appears to unite the ultra right and the ultra left. Is it really the loss of multi-crop land by comparatively rich farmers? Is it the Left Front’s choice of a particular industrial group, in this case Tata? Is it the choice of the product to be manufactured, in this case cheap cars?  Is it really the defense of human rights?  Or, is it something else?


Could this anger have been triggered by the decisive victory of the Left Front in 2006 which reduced all other political parties in West Bengal to a pathetic minority? Could it be anger against the CPI and CPM, which, somewhat uniquely among the world’s communist parties, have remained comparatively unaffected by the collapse of the Soviet Union? Could it be the frustration at the failure of the Naxalbari model of revolution and inability to revive it to become a formidable force? Or, could it really be a battle against the economic model being pursued by the CPM-led Left Front in West Bengal, portending an approach similar in principle, although not yet not in magnitude, to that in China and Viet Nam and slowly but surely in Cuba?  These are difficult questions. This note merely deals with what economic model is possible at this point in time. At the same time, it is worth noting that CPM is partly the victim of its own rhetoric against CPI starting way back at time of their split in 1964 and repeated as late as 2006 by Sitaram Yechuri (see, Economic and Political Weekly, July 22, 2006).  And this has been compounded by many intellectual supporters of CPM who find more faults than there are in globalization, farmer’s suicide, and food supply but rarely the plight of Dalits and Muslims.


All development, whether it is for development of industry or of infrastructure, involves the conversion of land from one kind of use to another. Many hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland, for example, have been lost and are being lost every year to the construction of coal-based power plants in India, starting from the surface mining of coal deposits to the erection of power plants, ash ponds, etc. Yet, apart from a few voices, nothing much has been heard on this issue, perhaps, because the demand for electric power is acute, although, for various other reasons, strong protests have erupted against hydropower projects. Similarly, the construction of roads, railways, canals, ports, and all other infrastructure also has a strong impact on land use. Therefore, there is nothing so drastically wrong in principle if farm land in Singur is acquired for industrial development even if it is done by the Tata group and even if it is to make cars. Whether or not the Tata group can deliver automobiles for as cheap as Rs. 200,000 (a little less than $5000) as they promise is something that remains to be seen. According to some, cars are not India’s priority and the term “car for the people” is an insult to the poor of India who cannot afford what is for them a luxury. However, the Left Front government cannot force Tatas to select another site or order them to set-up a different industry. In any case, given the dense man-land ratio in the state, there is probably no site in West Bengal and no industry which would not provoke protests.


The charges regarding the violation of the human rights of owners and cultivators in Singur that have been made by sections of the left, social activists and reactionaries does need to be addressed. In addressing this charge, especially made by those claiming to be left of CPM, it needs to be pointed out that the Singur project is not even remotely akin to the large scale appropriation of the land of millions of even two-horse owning farmers, nicknamed Kulaks, during the industrialization and collectivization drive in the erstwhile Soviet Union, which was hailed as almost the final victory of socialism by all brands of the Indian left. So the leftists’ outcry on the skirmishes between the West Bengal police and the organized opponents of Singur on the grounds of human rights is a sham. Social activists and some environmentalists and Gandhians who are prone to invariably mixing their anger against development by stressing the issue of inadequate rehabilitation should seriously examine whether they are as concerned about the injustices on Dalits and minorities.


If it can be established that the Tata project in Singur will deliver prosperity to a larger mass of the population, then it could be argued that it is the protesters who are indeed violating human rights. If they are allowed to win, they will become a force against the replacement of a purely agricultural-based economy, characterized by high unemployment or under-employment, by industrial development. On the other hand it is quite possible that the Singur deal between the Left Front Government and Tata was not done in a transparent manner and did not go through sufficient public consultation and education. It is possible that the majority of the Left Front did not do enough homework to inform the public before embarking on Singur project. If this is indeed the case the state government should take the necessary steps to correct it.


The journalist Praful Bidwai feels that Singur denotes “India’s Left Going the Lula way?” One can ask what, in a capitalist world, is the alternative to Lula’s way, i.e., what is the desired non-capitalist model of economic development? Is state capitalism, where the commanding heights of the economy are under state control, the desired model? Every one evades this basic issue and finds fault instead with the obvious shortcomings of capitalism.  Marx’s vision of socialism assumed a state of abundance and a kingdom of freedom based on voluntary association of workers as it emerged out of the womb of advanced capitalism. Marx did not advocate short cuts. So why drag in Marx in criticizing Singur? It would be more appropriate to invoke others who came after Marx and who tried short cuts or equated communist party rule, also known as the dictatorship of proletariat, with socialism.


Lenin’s and Mao’s models of socialism faced insurmountable obstacles and were proven by history to be unsustainable. During the debates on economic development in post-revolutionary Soviet Union and China, the models proposed by Bukharin and Liu Shao-chi were derided and discarded but history has demonstrated that they might not be as absurd as they were made out to be.  And without giving any acknowledgement, the Left Front Government might be partially following these models in a region of India, which they do not fully control.


To those people who are completely against converting any agricultural land to industrial use, a peasant-based economy appears as the only solution; this, however, can only ensure poverty to an even larger section of India than is the present reality. A peasant economy was Gandhi’s vision but found to be inappropriate by Nehru and Mahalanobis. As far as free school, medical care, a minimum guaranteed income, cheap government-subsidized housing and universal healthcare are concerned, those amenities already exist in many capitalist countries.


Given this reality and recognition of the fact that objective economic laws cannot be defied, the CPM-led Left Front has embarked upon an economic model of development, which undoubtedly is capitalist but not necessarily to perpetuate capitalism.  There are countries which are uniformly (or almost uniformly) poor but there is no country which is uniformly rich. India is a good example of uneven development. States compete with each other (proudly and loudly) in development goals. Fascist Narendra Modi boasts about Gujarat’s development, a boast that has elements of truth since Gujarat is perhaps the most industrialized state in India. However, minorities are not only systematically excluded from this development; they have to struggle for their very survival.


Bengal has one of the richest, if not the richest, tradition of excellence in science, literature, innovation and sacrifice in India for the longest period of time. Despite this, West Bengal is not economically as advanced as it deserves to be. It is perfectly justified for the Left Front government to bring the province at least on par with other prosperous states of India, if not ahead of them. In the meantime, those who do not have the chance to govern India should be allowed or even encouraged to do agitation. That undoubtedly makes India a much more democratic, livelier, and, possibly, livable, country as compared to China. 


So what is all this opposition to CPM and Singur about? The opposition by Hindutva fascists is understandable; the existence of the Left Front is a thorn in their drive to power. Congress has given up that dream. But why are small left parties and left-leaning intellectuals up in arms? Do they not know that with all their efforts, they have weakened, even if only marginally, CPI and CPM but have made no dent against the Sangh Parivar and other reactionary parties?  In the 2006 elections, the Left Front won West Bengal with a spectacular majority for the nth time. It seems that every one from the extreme right to the extreme left is united to ensure that this scenario is not repeated in the next election. Hopefully they will not succeed; if they do, it would be an irreparable loss to the organized left in India.

Top - Home