Reality Check for Trinamool Populism: Op-Ed by Arun Sukumar (MALD 13)

The Hindu

The Calcutta High Court’s decision to annul the Singur Land Rehabilitation and Development Act has been billed as a major victory for the Tata group. It is not. For the conglomerate, which had already sought greener pastures in Gujarat to produce its Nano car, this is only a triumph on paper. Relocating its factory back to Singur is neither profitable for Tata Motors nor is it likely to risk taking on West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, favourable court verdict or not.

Instead, the High Court has struck at the heart of the Trinamool Congress’ populist politics. To see how, let’s trace the history of the Singur Act. The principle of “eminent domain” allowed the Left Front government in 2008 to acquire land in Singur. But the acquisition was made under central legislation, since West Bengal’s own law had lapsed back in 1993. The TMC, sitting in opposition then, took upon itself the cause of farmers who had lost their land and led agitations to recover the same. Ms Banerjee promised to return the land if she were voted to power in the next State elections.

Once in government, however, the Trinamool Congress realised that returning the land would make the party seem opposed to industrialisation in the State — hardly the vaunted alternative to Marxian policy. So Ms. Banerjee’s government sought to create legislation from scratch for this purpose.

Three benefits 

Recourse to legislative action offered three main benefits. For one, legislation could be expected to withstand shifts in political fortunes better than executive acts, which may last only till the next decisive by-election. Second, Trinamool representatives tied their own hands with a Supreme Court order prohibiting the return of land acquired for a public purpose, except by auction. Third, and more importantly, passing a law in the State legislature would be more “democratic” than an executive decision by the government. The TMC could wash its hands off any anti-liberalisation blame by touting the bipartisan character of legislation. And so the Singur Land Rehabilitation and Development Act was born.

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