In a strange twist of fate, the place that swept her to power is proving to be her nemesis.
After the Left Front, it may now be Ms Mamata Banerjee’s turn to burn her fingers in Singur.
The recent order of the Calcutta High Court has ruled the Singur Land Rehabilitation and Development Act (a hastily drawn piece of law, used in dispossessing Tata Motors of the abandoned Nano facility) as “unconstitutional and void”.
This has dented her Government’s popularity, especially among the ‘unwilling’ farmers. Ms Banerjee promised to return 400 acres of land, after assuming power.
Convinced of her leadership, these 2,200-odd farmers earlier declined all offers to be compensated — with more cash, part return of land and even alternative agricultural land — by the former Left Front Government.
Their sacrifice lent pivotal support to Ms Banerjee’s movement, which forced the relocation of the Nano project, and eventually ended the 34-year-old Left rule in West Bengal.
While Ms Banerjee is now pinning her hopes on distribution of doles to keep the support base intact and is hoping for a favourable order from the Supreme Court, one wonders if she is faced with a similar denouement as the Left Front.
Meanwhile, the continued impasse has taken a toll on the people concerned, and on the industrialisation programme of the State.
On May 18, 2006, the day he was sworn in as the Chief Minister of West Bengal for a second term, Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee announced that he had secured the ‘dream project’, Nano. He initiated land acquisition at Singur, ignoring popular sentiments against the move.
What happened thereafter is history. The land acquisition triggered an agitation against the project, offering a political lifeline to Ms Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress, which had received a drubbing in the just-concluded Assembly elections.
But an overzealous Bhattacharjee government, its ego bloated by a record win in the 2006 elections, was in no mood to strike a compromise.
Instead, it went the whole hog to acquire land, steamrolling protests. The fire was further fuelled by the high-handedness of the ruling party cadres — who had become a law unto themselves over the three-and-a-half decades of the Left rule.
Words of caution, even from some CPI (M) bigwigs, were ignored. The mood in the Left camp was epitomised by the then Chief Minister’s oft-quoted remarks such as “We (Left) are 235, they (Trinamool) are 30”; the popular mandate imparted a sense of overconfidence. Meanwhile, Ms Banerjee’s juggernaut had started to roll.
The end result: in just about two years in October 2008 when the project was near-ready to roll out Nano, the Tatas announced a pull-out.
It happened when nearly 85 per cent of the 13,000 displaced had already accepted compensation, willingly or grudgingly. And the Left Front government — now sensing a steady erosion of its support base, as was evident in the May 2008 Panchayat polls — was finally ready to shower goodies on the 15 per cent ‘unwilling’ farmers.
But Ms Banerjee didn’t budge. She stood firm in her demand for 400 acres out of an almost-ready integrated automobile facility on 1,000 acres.
“No No to Nano,” she said.
Going by her resounding success in the 2011 Assembly polls, there is little doubt that Ms Banerjee had rightly represented popular sentiments against land acquisition.
But the chain of events may leave one wondering if she had staked the interests of Singur farmers in 2008, even when the Left was ready to yield, to score a wider political point with the latter.
Leave aside the legal tangle over the Singur Act that may take years to resolve; the moot question is whether there were at all enough ‘unwilling’ farmers to reclaim those “400 acres”.
Having taken control over the Singur land from Tata Motors in June 2011, Ms Banerjee’s Government immediately launched an initiative to line up the claimants till the high court issued a stay on the same. While the results of the initiative were never made public, it is understood that enough claims could not be substantiated.
Till 2006, Singur was another rural location with agriculture being the mainstay. The Left felt an industry there was needed, their overzealousness ironically driving out industry in the process.
Ms Banerjee promised to build industry on the undisputed 600 acres and create more jobs for Singur than the Left could ever promise.
Once in power with a popular mandate, she announced the decision to return 400 acres on her first day in office on May 20. And, all she could do so far was to acquire the land from Tatas — almost in the same way as the previous Left Front government had treated farmers — by virtue of a law that now stands illegal.
Singur is left behind with the concrete remains of a dream that has turned out to be a nightmare for every stakeholder.
Ms Banerjee now denies her responsibility to the majority farmers who accepted compensation, but were denied of the opportunity to earn alternative sources of livelihood around the automobile hub.
She offers Rs 2,000 a month and some rice from the State exchequer to the ‘unwilling’ as compensation for denying them better opportunities.
Once a quiet village, Singur is today the theme of a never-ending political pot-boiler, as parties across the board are eager to capitalise on its sufferings.