The Singur Judgement, End of Neoliberalism and Questions for the Indian Left


The Supreme Court verdict on Singur land acquisition that eventually signaled the beginning of the end of CPI(M)-led Left Front’s 34 year long rule in West Bengal, has come as a breath of fresh air. It is especially so, because the advent of the Modi government at the Centre had succeeded in reinstating the logic of corporate development, brushing aside all concerns regarding environmental clearances to land acquisition, despite its attempts to undo the provisions of the Land Acquisition Act 2013 (LARR 2013), being effectively rebuffed. The implications of the Singur judgement go far beyond West Bengal, for the argument made by Justices V. Gopala Gowda and Arun Mishra underlines one thing starkly: the “brunt of development” should not be borne by the “weakest sections of the society, more so, poor agricultural workers who have no means of raising a voice against the action of the mighty State government.” While the 204 page still waits to be read more closely, it is clear that the break that the Singur-Nandigram moment had already initiated in the neoliberal consensus among the political and state elite in 2006-7, continues to acquire legitimacy. Even the 2013 Act was a consequence of that break. The SC verdict recognizes that ‘growth’ and industrialization’ do not come without costs and who pays for those costs remains a key question at the end of the day.

At a very basic level, this is a recognition of the the fact that there is no such thing as a ‘trickle down’ effect – at least in the short run. Indeed, as every common person has always known, ‘trickle down’ only means access to crumbs thrown towards them by the partying elites. ‘Trickle down’ theory very simply evades the justice question by reifying the ‘economy’ and its ‘laws’ to the status of a theology that trumps everything else – including ethical questions. While it is understandable that commentators like the Indian Express editorial writer, find that “(T)he Left Front’s diagnosis that West Bengal needed an industrial revolution to overcome social and economic stagnation was apt”, or that economists would still continue to harp on the virtues of ‘industrialization’, what is truly appalling are the reactions from the CPI(M).

The CPI(M) reaction ranged from its West Bengal state secretary, Suryakanta Misra adamantly reiterating there is no question of apologizing (implying that there is nothing to rethink – after all just the other day his party’s Singur candidate Rabin Deb, had thought it fit to campaign in Singur, riding on his Nano) – to the party’s politburo blaming it all on the 1894 Land Acquisition Act! The utter dishonesty of the assertion that the land had to be acquired “under the 1894 Act as that was the only instrument available at that time” is only matched by the continuing arrogance of a party that has got used to believing that it can make people believe whatever non-sense it dishes out. That nobody is any longer buying their stories has not sunk in despite continuous erosion of the party’s support and credibility. Very simply, no law can prevent you from giving the farmers a better deal – it is your decision that you want to go by the worst features of the law. In any case, the judgement makes it clear that the state government had not even adhered to “the proper procedure as laid down in the Land Acquisition Act”, so it is nothing less than comic to suggest that the party’s and government’s hands were tied by an archaic law. Indeed, as we have often argued on Kafila and elsewhere, and as the this article by TK Arun shows, there have been, since, more creative ways of dealing with the question of land acquisition in places like NOIDA and Haryana. Since the CPI(M) leaders have made it a virtue to not think or read, they may have missed the news that even the IMF now seems to be having second thoughts about the neoliberal dogma.

Here is a report from The Guardian by Aditya Chakrabortty that they might do well to read. An extract from the article:

The results, the IMF researchers concede, have been terrible. Neoliberalism hasn’t delivered economic growth – it has only made a few people a lot better off. It causes epic crashes that leave behind human wreckage and cost billions to clean up, a finding with which most residents of food bank Britain would agree. And while George Osborne might justify austerity as “fixing the roof while the sun is shining”, the fund team defines it as “curbing the size of the state … another aspect of the neoliberal agenda”. And, they say, its costs “could be large – much larger than the benefit”.

And this is by no means the only report to have emerged from within the citadels of the orthodoxy, which have begun the question the creed. But like a broken record, the CPMWB is stuck on its theme of selling industrialization as the panacea for all the ills in the state. This is not the place to get into the larger argument about industrialization – I have written about and against it on many occasions ealier – but it may be worthwhile recalling the Left’s own history in the state a bit in order to underline one of the key questions that cries out for rethinking today.

For those aware of the period of the late 1960s, the tumultuous period of the 1967 and 1969 United Front governments was one of intense struggle – for seizure of benami land on the one hand and militant labour struggles in the urban areas on the other. The word gherao was coined during those heady days and it does seem that much of the militancy of the party was related to the challenge from the Left that it had been facing in the form of the Naxalite revolt. Whatever be the case, it was largely a consequence of the militant workers’ struggles of those days that large-scale flight of capital from the state took place. Industry rapidly moved to greener pastures in North India, where there was general ‘industrial peace’ – what current CPM leaders would call a ‘healthy investment climate’. (That this statement is is not an exaggeration is adequately proven by the fact that one of its leaders, Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya in fact spoke like a FICCI or CII spokesperson, when he said of the SC verdict, that “this will create panic among investors, no one would come to Bengal”!)

As industry moved out, leading to what has been referred to as the deindustrialization of West Bengal, the state reeled under a long spell of gloom and depression. Unemployment or bekari became the theme song of some of the most important literary and cinematic creations of the time. But while these literary or cinematic reflections maintained their critique of ‘the system’, the CPMWB, quietly learnt another lesson. It learnt that it was workers’ militancy that was responsible for the flight of capital and therefore, of unemployment. As a matter of fact, CPMWB never recovered from that sense of defeat. Thus when the Left Front came to power with the CPMWB alone holding absolute majority, it had no desire to repeat the militancy of the 1960s; rather its entire effort was geared towards the industrialization of the state – and, as a corollary, ensuring the right ‘investment climate’ for capital. S0me of the initial industrial projects like the Bakreshwar Thermal Power project or Haldia Petrochemicals became points of emotive mass mobilization by the Left organizations among the students and youth. Very soon, by 1985, Jyoti Basu in fact, virtually forced the party to fall in line with his plan to develop industry in the ‘joint sector’ – what would be called public-private partnership in today’s language. The story that began thus, was destined to end in Singur and Nandigram. ‘Industrialization’, the communists had already forgotten, was in fact a part of the problem, not the solution as far as unemployment was concerned. Once you start believing that corporate bourgeois property is the only legitimate form of property and ownership and all other forms must cede way to it, then there is no other way. That is the classic scenario outlined by Marx, where there are owners of capital on one side, and owners of nothing but their labour power on the other. What other way of dealing with unemployment can this yield but surrender to capital and its whims?

In a manner of speaking, this is not a specific problem of CPI(M) or even Indian communists in general but a more global one. In the 1990s, German trade unions had to virtually surrender to ‘their capital’, accept humiliating conditions for making it stay in the country and not relocate elsewhere. And yet, such is the power of ‘ideology’ that this is one tenet of Marxism that communists do not want to touch (most Indian communists of course do not want to touch any but let’s leave that for another day). Is it really not possible to think of different forms of ownership (from the commons to cooperatives) as possible alternative models, alongside other forms that base themselves on use rather than ownership? Is is necessary to first destroy all other forms of life and livelihoods (where property in its bourgeois form may not even be a separately identifiable entity) and let the problem of unemployment overtake you? Must the question of forms of property and ownership be deferred to an always-deferred, perhaps never-to-arrive future? These questions have now acquired a new urgency in the context of climate change when it is no longer possible to innocently talk of industrialization and pretend not to see that we are on the edge of a precipice, rapidly moving towards self-destruction.

Courtesy: Kafila; Photo Courtesy: Tribune



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