On Wednesday, the Supreme Court held that the forcible acquisition of land in Singur by the Left Front government of West Bengal was illegal. Acquiring land for a private company could not be termed a "public purpose", a judge held. The land had been forcibly acquired for Tata Motors in 2006 and the company planned to build its small car, the Tata Nano in it.
In 2006, the forcible acquisition of land led in turn to a political movement by the farmers of the area, supported by then Opposition leader Mamata Banerjee. As a result of the movement, Tata had to relocate the plant to Gujarat – where it again saw controversy with critics pointing to the significant subsidies the Gujarat government had provided Tata Motors with.
In 2011, Banerjee made opposition to land acquisition her major campaign plank and managed to end the Left Front’s 34-year long rule. In the 2016 Assembly elections, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), still standing by its land acquisition misadventure, actually started its Singur campaign in a Tata Nano. The result was an ever bigger disaster: the CPI(M) slipped behind even the Congress and is now the third-largest party in the West Bengal Assembly.
Incredibly, even the Wednesday Singur judgment did not force the CPI(M) to acknowledge the fact that its land policy was unpopular with Bengalis. On Wednesday, CPI(M) State secretary Surjya Kanta Mishra refused to apologise for forcibly acquired land in Singur.
In Anglophone India, it is popular to talk of the end of left politics altogether – a Francis Fukuyama-style end of history argument. Of course, history never ends. The 2016 US Presidential elections, thus far, has had a strong (if ultimately unsuccessful) challenge from a self-styled socialist, Bernie Sanders. And of course, in West Bengal, the party now firmly in charge, the Trinamool, has an economic policy that can be best described as “left-wing populist” (an emerging force in Europe as well).
In fact, it’s not only Mamata Banerjee. Narendra Modi might be socially conservative but his economics is not very far from the Indian centre. Modi has postured against corporate hand-outs and kept the National Rural Employment Guarantee act going.
While many of Modi’s Anglophile supporters might have nursed fond wishes of him turning into the next Margaret Thatcher and privatising everything in sight, the Prime Minister might know India a bit better than them. It is not very apparent from reading the newspapers, but Indians are a desperately poor people. India ranks 130th in the Human Development Index out of 188 countries. Indians suffer from alarming levels of malnutrition and India is the 25th worst state in the world when it comes to handling hunger. A few of the countries that are able to offer better food security to its citizens than India are Bangladesh, Nepal and even war-torn Iraq. In India, so terrible is the public health system that 38 out of 1,000 children born never see their first birthday. In South Asia, only Pakistani babies have a worse chance of survival.
The Left gap in Indian politics
Given this desperate poverty, it is fanciful to expect that left politics will die out in India. Given that Indians are actually eating less today than they were before the 1991 liberalisation reforms, it is clear that right-wing economics, as it is practised in India, is not very good mass politics. In fact, it may be no coincidence that the CPI(M)’s best ever Lok Sabha tally came not during they heyday of communism in the 1960s or 70s but in in 2004, 13 years after reforms kicked off in India.
Of course, it was ironically after 2004 that the Left started its policy of land acquisitions in West Bengal and eventually farmer movements in Singur and Nandigram led to its downfall.
Why the CPI(M) decided to ape the economic polices of the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party will remain a mystery. If Bengalis wanted Congress or BJP-style economic policies, they could have simply voted for them in the first place.
Rather than copy something it's not very good at, the CPI(M) should stick to its core competence: left politics and voicing the demands of the dispossessed. Given the vast amounts of rural distress now present in India, this is a definite gap that needs filling in Indian politics.