Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Nano Vision



Undoubtedly much of it is posturing. And, almost certainly a compromise would be reached. Buddhadev Bhattacharya has already indicated that there could be a re-worked R & R plan, the Tatas will – possibly – also up their compensation. Overall the stakes are too high for all constituents. The state government cannot be seen to let another committed investor go- away. The Tatas for all their tough talking have gone too far down to pull out at this late stage – especially without a ‘Plan B’ ready they not only have shareholders to answer to but also can’t afford a loss of face internationally by a delayed launch (who might question their ability to run the JLR operations overseas when they have trouble managing their own backyard at home ) and, not to mention, the risk of losing their first mover advantage with competition breathing down their neck with plans for launching similar products soon. Mamata Banerjee too won’t be able to bear the cross of driving away investment from the state (One hears that she has already sent some feelers to the government on what could be some possible alternatives). So, it is a reasonably safe bet to place on the Nano rolling out of Singur – albeit after some breathtaking brink(wo)manship.


Brand Buddha & Mamata's Kurukshetra

Out of all this the CPM’s image will take a further beating, ‘Brand Buddha’ would lose some more basis points and his starched white Kurta ( ‘Punjabi’ as the Bongs call it for some strange reason ) would look a wee-bit crumpled. And, whether the urban intelligentsia likes it or not, either ways, it would be a huge symbolic victory for Mamata which would raise her stock in rural Bengal – her chosen ‘kurukshetra’ against the mighty Marxists . But, the ultimate loser will be West Bengal. Even if the Government is able to avert a pull-out of the Tatas, this will be a huge set-back which will put all but a paid stamp on any dreams of having an industrially resurgent Bengal in the foreseeable future. Forget new investors – even existing industries, the Tatas included, would lose confidence and think twice as hard before increasing their exposure in the state. There is absolutely no question that, the Tatas would not put any more monies behind this plant – possibly reducing its dependence on Singur as they set-up a second manufacturing facility elsewhere – for which they already have open offers from other states.


Singularly Singur

I do not know the facts about the land-acquisition Therefore, I cannot and would not like to comment on whether the land holders were treated fairly and a just and equitable R & R plan had been put in place to start with. Though I have heard – seemingly logical - arguments even within well-informed and knowledgeable circles that, incursion into prime agricultural land could have – perhaps – been avoided, by reclaiming the vast stretches of industrial land along the banks of the Hooghly – now lying unused after the Jute Mills shut-down and Engineering companies relocated to other parts of the country. But, apparently – such an option was not acceptable to the Tatas as the cost of industrial plots (that would have to be purchased from companies and business houses who have been holding on to them as valuable real-estate) would have been much more than agricultural land acquired through a decree of the state government. And, they singled out Singur ( Buddha himsel had said this) of all the locations that were shown to them due to its proximity to Calcutta. Then, there is also a view that, the state has acquired more land than was actually required for setting-up the factory – ostensibly for the ancillary units that might come up near the plant ( so Mamata Banerjee’s 400acre argument may not be entirely unfounded). It also appears a little curious that, the Tatas - who are past masters of land acquisition (with experience of over a century across the country - including troubled spots like Orissa and Bastar) did not engage with the local communities ahead of commencing construction activities, as is there routine practice elsewhere. They were possibly lulled into believing - by the forceful re-assurances of the Chief Minister - that, the land would come to them on a platter. Be that as it may, any which way one looks at it, it is a dismal failure of the government to deliver what was promised - for a flagship investment in the state after years of industrial drought.


Mamta Bashing

While Mamata bashing would be popular both for the media and the cosmopolitan intelligentsia, I would argue that she couldn’t have been expected to behave any differently. Aren’t politicians genetically coded to fish in troubled waters ? Would the CPM have acted any differently had they been in opposition ? Therefore, I wasn’t surprised in the least to see on television yesterday – the ubiquitous Amar Singh suddenly turning up by Mamata’s side addressing a rally in Singur. So, did Buddha underestimate Mamata or was he simply being politically na├»ve – as people believe he was in Nandigram, where they say he was taken for a royal ride by his own party’s local satraps who misled and misguided him at every step ? I think that at both these places the CPM was victim of its own arrogance – assuming that the party machinery was all powerful and would be able to steam-roll over any challenges on the ground. But, stuffing ballot boxes in successive elections to secure a thumping majority is not the same thing as dispossessing farmers from their land – for a party whose credo has been built by selling the dream of securing land for the landless.


Small isn't Bad

In many ways the very successes for which the CPM has been lauded during their three decades of uninterrupted rule in West Bengal has also been the cause of their undoing. First, it is not generally known that West Bengal is one of the best examples of a state where land reform has actually worked. Today, it ranks among the highest in terms of agricultural production among the states. With less than 3% of the cultivable land it accounts for nearly 8% of the country’s food grain production. It is number 1 in Rice and 28% of the country’s potato is produced in West Bengal – much of it grown in and around Singur. And, the biggest beneficiary of this agricultural boom has been the small farmer . West Bengal has become a case-study for the thesis - “Small is not necessarily bad”. With the exodus of industries in the 70s following the Naxalite movement and the natural demise of the Jute Mills, West Bengal has been converted into a primarily into an agrarian economy. Sadly some might say – but that’s the reality. The rise in per-capita income and the consequent increase in Purchasing power one has seen in the recent years have come essentially from the new-found rural prosperity. Therefore, displacement of the agricultural community – without providing alternate source of employment and income is bound to be a Herculean task. Who would have known this better than the CPM, which has thrived for decades on the politics of the land ownership? And, if Buddhadev Bhattacharya or his senior party colleagues didn’t anticipate this – then it can only be described as a monumental miscalculation of their collective leadership.

Either with us or against us

Secondly, West Bengal is almost unequivocally credited to be one state where Panchayati Raj is a reality. While critics my argue that – it was implemented with the sole objective of extending the party’s stranglehold to the village level and it is nothing but an elaborate machinery to ensure successive electoral victory through organized rigging – there’s no denying that grass-root democracy can be seen at work there unlike many other states across the country. But 30 years of rule does create a level of fatigue and an anti-incumbency factor. Besides, while industrialists from across the country – would unanimously vouch for “non-corrupt” credentials of the current CPM leadership at the state level, the same cannot always be said of their local leadership at the village, block or district levels. Instances of diversion of central grants and development funds are no longer unknown or exceptional, as evident from the changing life-style of many a local leader. And, a certain degree of totalitarianism is bound to have set in - with an " you are either with us or against us" attitude.


Shifting Battleground

It is these developing cracks in the CPM’s formidable armour that Mamata has been trying to exploit in the last few years. Recognising the growing disenchantment with the ruling party, she has intelligently shifted her battleground to rural West Bengal. Initially, she had tried to woo the urban elite by enlisting lawyers, doctors, retired bureaucrats and even generals into her ‘A’ team, but was quick to realize that these people were actually a drag on her fire-brand style and did not have the ability to garner votes. She also found that agitating over urban centric issues or getting embroiled in political equations at the Centre did little to add to her mass appeal or enlarge her vote bank in the political hinterland of Calcutta. Instead, she was better off taking on the Left in their own bastion. Much as everyone would like to deny it that, she has been making progress – may be inch by inch – as is evident from Nandigram, Singur and the recent Panchayat elections. She certainly ain't a Mayavati, but however eager her detractors may be to write her off as a misguided and spent force – she is also not going to disappear in a hurry.

Not in a Nano-second

So where does all this leave the Nano ? I believe the Tatas are faced with a Hobson’s choice. In an environment that has been sullied for good, the starting of the plant could just be the beginning of their troubled existence in the state. The CPM cannot undo in a Nano second what it has done over the decades in systematically purging the state of its industrial work-culture. And, Mamata wouldn’t do anything to help them either.