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Darkness at noon in West Bengal

By Subir Roy
October 17, 2007 10:58 IST
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The new economic dawn that Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has been seeking to initiate in West Bengal may have received a severe jolt from two ongoing developments. One is the fallout from the death of a Muslim youth, Rizwanur Rahman, and the other is the unabating public protests in the districts against the malfunctioning of the state's public distribution system.

The fear is that these two will weaken the hand of Bhattacharjee, who is the best thing that has happened to the state in a long time and who already has to fight on several fronts to keep his economic initiative going.

The two developments are particularly important for the ruling dispensation of West Bengal as they strike at the roots of what both the people of the state and their rulers hold dear. The state seeks to take pride in its social attitudes and social policy.

A big question has been posed against them by the death of Rizwan. He fell in love with and married Priyanka Todi, after which followed a period of harassment to back out of the marriage. The city police played a clear role in putting pressure on him. Eventually his dead body was found near the railways tracks on the outskirts of the city.

Priyanka's father is Ashok Todi is a cricket bookie turned hosiery mill owner who appears to have been introduced to the city police commissioner Prasun Mukherjee by cricketer Sourav Ganguly's brother Snehashis, who is assistant secretary to the Cricket Association of Bengal.

The police chief, in case you have forgotten, is head of the state's cricket body, for which position he had fought a memorable battle, at the behest of the chief minister, against Jagmohan Dalmiya and initially lost. The big issue is: How did Rizwan die? Was it murder or suicide? If it was the latter, which few believe, was he driven to it by police harassment? Three senior police officers' names are being freely mentioned in the saturation daily news coverage that the issue has been getting.

The government and the CPI(M) have been fumbling. Elder statesman Jyoti Basu first announced that two officers had been transferred and then ate his words. The government has been conducting an enquiry by the same police force whose senior officers may be culpable, Rizwan's family has demanded the investigation be handed over to the CBI, the state government has instead initiated a judicial enquiry.

In a leftist-ruled state, top cops seem to be quite thick with big money of the not too savoury kind. Worse, one of the top cops in the thick of the controversy is closely linked to the chief minister. What does it do to his image, which has till now been as white as his dhoti?

Many see the whole matter as the end of Bhattacharjee's innocence. He can henceforth be expected to sound more like an apparatchik and less like a change agent who has not been entirely conditioned by the system. Even more important, what does this do to the state's self-image of being above religious backwardness?

Right now the image of the state government is in the mud in urban areas. This, when Bhattacharjee helped swing back the urban vote that the Left Front had lost to the Trinamool Congress, led by Mamata Banerjee. Cynicism towards the authorities, be they cops or politicians, is at an all-time high.

If you think the negative mood is an urban phenomenon, created by the media, the countryside poses an even greater challenge to left rule. A fire, in the form of popular violence against the malfunctioning of the rationing system, is spreading from one district to another -- from Bankura to Birbhum to Bardhaman.

Ration shop owners, their licences and their houses are being attacked and set on fire by a popular fury that sees food meant for the public distribution system being diverted to the open market. This has the attributes of a grassroots movement -- it began in the poorest parts of the state -- with state-level leaders of opposition parties being conspicuous by their absence.

What is particularly worrisome for the ruling Left Front is that the panchayat elections are due early next year. What will be the outcome if the countryside continues to burn like this?

Some are asking if this movement can eventually be the nemesis of left rule, drawing a parallel with the food agitation of the mid-sixties, which ousted the Congress and brought the United Front to power.

The agitation may die down but it may not also. What is certain is that the public distribution system is both inefficient and corrupt with a nexus between a new class that has emerged through its connections with the political setup that has been in power for three decades now.

The irony is that these troubles have hit Bhattacharjee when he seems to be succeeding in his attempt to bring industrialisation to the state. Right in the midst of the twin turmoils he signed agreements with two industrial groups -- Jai Balaji and Videocon -- to set up two steel mills in the state, bringing the total number of new steel projects announced to five, involving an investment of Rs 70,000 crore (Rs 700 billion).

The state seems at least ready to reap the benefits of the removal of freight equalisation, helped by the global boom in steel prices. The Tatas' car project in Singur is making clear, if slow, progress and the state has submitted to the Centre a fresh application for a chemicals hub at a new site after the government decided to shift it in the face of intense violent protests in Nandigram.

The state needs the industrialisation desperately to make a dent in poverty. Its human development record remains distinctly mediocre, quite unlike that of a state like Tamil Nadu, which is racing to the top (from seventh in 1981 to third in 2001) or even Rajasthan, which has improved its relative position (from 12th to ninth) and has come up right behind West Bengal (at 8th right throughout) in the league table of 15 important states.

But there can hardly be industrialisation without peace.

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Subir Roy
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