In the annals of Indian politics, the term 'historic blunder' is associated with Jyoti Basu, the CPM patriarch who accused Indian Marxists of committing the sin by not letting him become the Prime Minister by heading a coalition government in 1996.
But the term should equally apply to Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee's decision to invite the Tatas for opening up a car manufacturing unit in Singur back in September 2006. It marked an inflection point in India's history and caused a cataclysmic chain of events that culminated in the once formidable Left Front being eventually reduced to a rump in the state, battling now to remain relevant.
Epochal in every sense, the Singur legal verdict announced by the Supreme Court on Wednesday — asking the state to return to the farmers the nearly 1000 acres of land and striking down the then Left Front government's acquisition as bad in law, intent and execution — is still little more than a reinforcement of the political verdict that was delivered in 2011 and fortified five years later in 2016.
And that political verdict wouldn't have been so overwhelmingly in Mamata Banerjee's favour had Buddhadeb babu, the former chief minister, not committed the greatest hubris of his career. That moment alone, which I posit should be taken as a 'historic blunder', not only hastened Left Front's demise in the state but — and this is the gist — it crucially denuded the Left of its ideological plank and handed it on a platter to Mamata who was only too happy to claim it.
In one of history's little ironies the Left, which professes to represent the powerless, the marginalised and the underprivileged, ended its 34-year Bengal innings on a note of utter ignominy — routed and disgraced for committing the heretical 'neo-liberal sins' of faulty industrial policies and forceful land acquisition. The Singur movement disjointed Left Front's unity and drove its mass base and grassroot-level support lock, stock and barrel to Mamata's fledgling Trinamool Congress.
This was not just any defeat. Mamata's win, the seeds of which were sown during the Singur movement, was the buttressing of a model which the Left Front had successfully practiced for three decades but then junked it in favour of an image makeover championed by Buddhadeb babu.
The former CM, who formulated the IT policy and wanted to break away from the politics of bandhs, gheraoes, rampant trade unionism by injecting a dose of reform in the party and in the functioning of the government, took the 2006 Assembly poll result as a signal that Bengal was ready to transform from an agrarian economy to an industrial one.
Hindsight provides a rare clarity. The former CM had no such benefits.
Bear in mind that by 2006, when the move to invited Tatas was taken, the Left as a political force was already on the wane despite the electoral numbers it had garnered that year. There was a desperate need for jobs and the state coffers were near empty.
A 2011 report by Ishita Ayan Dutt in Business Standard, quoting state government figures, reveals the extent of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee's problems during the last few years of his tenure. "During 2005-09, West Bengal received 1,362 proposals, which promised investments of Rs 2,37,000 crore (Rs 2,370 billion). But only 10 percent of those were implemented, a fact reflected in the unemployment figures that touched 6.4 million."
While Buddhadeb's aggressive wooing of industry was paying dividends in terms of the number of proposals, it accelerated the need for land. But, as Dutt points out in the report mentioned above, of the 1,350 million acres of agricultural land, the government held only 23,000 acres of which only five percent was fallow.
Harrowed by a burgeoning debt figure triggered by a deepening revenue deficit, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee committed a series of blunders from police firing at Nandigram to land acquisition at Singur.
Failure is an orphan. As the Singur chickens finally come home to roost after a decade, the CPM, already a spent force in the state, scrambled on Wednesday to limit a fresh round of political wounds.
With a two-judge Supreme Court bench (according to a PTI report) quashing the land acquisition by directing the authorities to change land use of acquired plots and give them back to farmers who were deprived of occupation and enjoyment of their lands for a decade, the party struggled to provide even a semblance of defence with septuagenarian Buddhadeb babu refusing to utter one word on the verdict.
Though the Supreme Court ruling will make it difficult for Tata Motors to recover the Rs 1,400 crore damages it has sought, the real indictment lay for the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government. The bench of justices V Gopala Gowda and Arun Mishra said, "The acquisition of 997 acres by West Bengal’s Left Front government for the Tata Motors plant in Singur failed to meet the requirements of the Land Acquisition Act, 1894, and directed the state government to return the land to its owners in 12 weeks."
It was a clear commentary on the procedural faults at play, and the responsibility lay squarely on Left Front's door.
CPM's state secretary Surjya Kanta Mishra, the only leader brave enough to take questions from the media, tried to quibble, backtrack and seemed to be ruling out an apology.
"This is not an issue of tendering an apology. We have said clearly earlier that the land cannot be acquired against the wishes of the farmer… We were never opposed to returning the land… Now the question will be how the land will be returned and in what condition," The Indian Express quoted him as saying.
But sadly, Congress, the Left's alliance partner in the state, seemed to be siding with TMC instead. "I was personally with the Trinamool Congress during the movement… I feel the farmers of Singur today got justice," the newspaper quoted Opposition leader and Congress veteran Abdul Mannan as saying.
Bruised, battered and devoid of even an electoral plank, this was perhaps the only comeuppance left for the Left Front, whose Bengal unit was recently on the verge of a revolt against the central leadership over electoral tie-up with the Congress.