By Sirshendu Panth
Singur, June 9 (IANS) It was an unrecognisable Mamata Banerjee, far from the familiar feisty and firebrand leader that one has seen over the decades. The West Bengal Chief Minister was teary eyed as she rebuked local Trinamool Congress leaders for the party falling way behind the BJP in the recent Lok Sabha polls from Singur – the rural belt that had played a key role in catapulting her to power eight years back.
Trinamool Congress’ sitting MP Ratna De not only went down to BJP’s Locket Chatterjee in the Hooghly Lok Sabha seat by 73,362 votes, but she also had a 10,427 vote deficit in the Singur assembly segment.
Banerjee was emotion personified as she minced no words to tell party leaders from Hooghly district that “it is a personal loss, a matter of shame” to lose in Singur where she had successfully led a farmer’s agitation between 2006 and 2008 against the then Left Front government’s acquisition of land for the Tata Motors’ Nano car factory.
The intense and often violent agitation, during which Banerjee demanded the return of 400 acres – out of the total acquired land of 997.11 acres – to those farmers who did not want to part with their land, resulted in the Tatas shifting the project out of Singur to Gujarat’s Sanand and an upward swing in her popularity graph, that had fallen low since the Trinamool’s miserable performance in the 2006 assembly polls.
Spearheading a similarly successful anti-land acquisition movement in Nandigram (in East Midnapore district), Banerjee led Trinamool from strength to strength to ultimately end the 34-year Left Front rule in 2011 when she became the Chief Minister.
“What have I not done for Singur? But some leaders in our party take cut money (commission) from the poor people for reaching government services to them. Naturally, people have turned away from us,” she reportedly said during the internal party meeting at the Trinamool state headquarters here earlier this week.
“You people fought among yourselves and the party lost. You all became MPs, MLAs, Panchayat functionaries and held important posts in the party. What are you giving back to the party? I have been working untiringly. How much more can I work? I am fed up,” she told her party leaders.
Then she turned more sentimental. “The day I am no more, then you will understand,” she said, her voice choking with emotion, as the party leaders listened in pin drop silence.
While the Trinamool has received severe setbacks in the general elections, with its West Bengal tally coming down to 22 from the 34 seats it won in 2014 out of the 42 Lok mSabha seats in the state, the Singur defeat perhaps has hurt Banerjee the most. It was in some ways symbolic of the party losing ground to the BJP, which saw its seat count go up to 18 from a mere two five years back.
Singur is a big milestone in the history of the Trinamool, West Bengal, in the annals of agrarian movements in the state, and, above all, in Banerjee’s chequered political life.
Three events during the popular movement had created particular impact across the nation and even beyond its shores – the way she was beaten up by the police on September 25, 2006, for laying siege to the Singur Block Development Office in protest against what she called “fraudulent distribution of cheques to land owners”, her 26-day hunger strike in Kolkata in December, 2006, to press for the return of 400 acres of land, and the 14-day siege she laid to the factory from August 25, 2008.
Banerjee never forgot Singur after coming to power.
In her very first cabinet meeting on the day she took oath in 2011, Banerjee decided to return 400 acres to the cultivators. Her government enacted the Singur Land Rehabilitation and Development Act 2011 to acquire the land, but the Tatas moved court against it.
After a prolonged legal battle, on August 31, 2016, the Supreme Court struck down the land acquisition for the project made by the Left Front government and ordered that the land be given back to the cultivators.
The Banerjee government added to the joy of the apex court verdict by handing over the physical possession of land to farmers and promised to make the entire stretch cultivable without delay.
Three years down the line, however, despondency among the famers over a large chunk of the land continuing to remain infertile and the failure of the local and district administrations in this regard seem to have turned the tables on the Trinamool.
According to the local farmers, only 400 acres of land are now cultivable, while 500-600 acres of acquired area still remain barren.
“Despite disputes over proper demarcation, we have got papers of the land back but they are of no use as these have become wasteland. Our land remains infertile, Ramen Patra of Bajemelia village, who got nine kathas of land back, had told IANS ahead of the polls.
“Seeing our land with unwieldy growth of shrubs, slush and filth is upsetting us. Our only appeal to politicians is to make it cultivable or use it for productive purpose,” he added.
This has turned out to be a warning about things to come.
Many farmers now want industries, with a good number of them pitching for the return of the Tatas. In fact, soon after the poll results, a large number of Singur farmers hit the streets, demanding industries be set up on their land which still lie barren.
Sensing the mood, Chatterjee, soon after her victory, said it was her top priority to ensure the Tatas come back to Singur as part of efforts to industrialise the area.
The BJP’s Kissan Morcha has also become active in Singur. As part of its bid to make inroads among local farmers, it organised an afforestation campaign earlier this week.
“The people there want industries. The peasants are in great distress. The government should hold a mass convention and initiate steps to set up industries,” said Kissan Morcha state president Ramkrishna Pal.
Amid the political tussle, one thing is clear. Singur is back at the centre-stage of Bengal politics. But the only difference is that the Trinamool could be at the receiving end this time.
(Sirshendu Panth can be reached at [email protected])