The ongoing Singur siege: populist, social democratic, and horizontal responses to neo-liberalism

August 31, 2008

By Kuver Sinha, Sanhati. Open for comments

The Singur siege

There is an ongoing siege in Singur, West Bengal, the site of the Tata Nano project. The Trinamul Congress, led by Mamata Banerjee, has demanded that of all the land acquired by the State Government using the colonial Land Acquisition Act of 1894, 400 acres be returned to farmers who had been unwilling to sell. The Krishi Jomi Jibon Raksha Committee or KJJRC (Save Farmland Committee) is the broad umbrella organization carrying out the struggle. Various civil society groups have rallied behind this call, as have landed farmers, landless labourers, and sharecroppers of the area.

The impasse continues. There have been threats issued from all sides – the Tatas have threatened to pull out from Bengal and ply their trade in other willing states, the Chief Minister has declared that the Nano car will roll out in October regardless, and the Trinamul Congress has continued its siege.

The story is not new. Social democratic parties like the CPIM are adjusting within the neo-liberal paradigm the world over, their populist opponents are spearheading peoples’ movements with anti-neoliberal rhetoric, while various horizontal civil society and landless peoples’ groups try to accomodate themselves in the tiny wedge between two juggernauts.

The constant insistence on the part of the CPIM that the compensation package in Singur is superior to that in the rest of the country, the insistence that the movement in Nandigram was in fact not about land acquisition but a turf war, that it is trying to “soften” the effects of neo-liberal onslaught, are typical of adjusting social democratic parties. The extreme violence meted out to people in Nandigram and Singur by the party’s functionaries demonstrably show that the method is not one of “softening” but one of brutalisation. The failure of the Party to ensure over the decades even a minimum standard in public health and education, its crumbling public distribution system, its rampant corruption and nepotism, have left it with no option but to forge violently ahead into a copy-paste implementation of neo-liberal dictates. Taking to heart the mantra that “the market” will cure what it could not, World Bank loans and multi-donor “health sector reforms” are now the preferred tools for improvement in health, the retail sector is being opened up to giants like Reliance, while big corporations, national and multinational, are invited to participate in the oft-repeated neo-liberal process of “development”.

The Trinamul Congress, on the other hand, has issued populist slogans against neo-liberalisation, while essentially being prepared to go the same way in terms of actual policy. Thus its central demand in the current Singur siege has been that the Tata corporation is free to take land elsewhere, as long as it gives back the 400 acres. The process of development in itself is not attacked – Mamata Banerjee has repeatedly said that she does not want the Tatas to leave – what is attacked is the immediate issue of coercive acquisition. In the wake of its Panchayat success, the Trinamul Congress declared that it wouldn’t oppose the current paradigm of development, as long as just compensation was handed out. Given its complicity in previous acquisition projects over the last decade (the much less well-known example of Rajarhaat comes to mind, where the Trinamul Congress worked hand in hand with the CPIM in a frenzy of loot), the current protests over coercion sound particularly opportunistic.

In the absence of a genuine Left alternative, protesting farmers and civil society groups have often shared space with such populist elements. The option of conducting mass struggle outside the ambit of such elements was lost very early on. It is the Trinamul Congress which held sway over the areas adjoining Singur – once land acquisition came, the movement was almost immediately co-opted. Various anti-CPIM communist groups have shared the platform with the Trinamul in participating in the peoples movement – those that didn’t lost voice in the umbrella KJJRC. With its continuous bombast, its leaders fasting for days in magnificent Satyagrahas, and in the face of the CPIM’s continuing terror which put utmost importance to the preservation of a vibrant and united KJJRC and middle class movement, the Trinamul’s basic character of populism has been put on hold. Leftists who have no illusion about its character have been caught helpless, others have blurred class analysis by pointing out the Trinamul’s ties to small and middle capital, contrasting it to the CPIM’s ties to big capital. The middle class has gone from event to event, protesting on the streets against the CPIM’s terror in unprecedented numbers. And yet, it is only the Trinamul which has had the mobilizing power to bring life around Kolkata to a grinding halt.

The “civil society” movement and the big media

While a critique of the populist nature of the current siege is necessary from the Left, equally necessary is an understanding of what, in the books of the corporate media, constitutes populism, as opposed to its ubiquitously contrasted cousin, pragmatism. Expectedly, Bengal’s corporate media has always supported the CPIM’s neo-liberal policies, and the consensus is that Tata’s departure would spell doom for the state. This is typical of the free market stance on populism – anything that talks about the interests of the majority of the people is viewed with suspicion and derision. Thus, subsidizing food grains or household energy, or returning land to people who do not want to give it, is considered “populist”, while giving a subsidy of Rs. 140 crore to the Tatas in Singur is considered “investment friendly” and critical for economic development. The labeling of the current siege as populist by the corporate media is thus at once convenient and insidious.

On the other hand, the role of the non-CPIM Left, organized and spontaneous, has been one of abject failure. Singur lost the headlines to Nandigram, and with it went the citizens’ fora and small Leftist organizations. As landless labourers first went hungry and refused to work on the construction site and then capitulated as conditions got worse, no organizing was done, no spotlight was cast. Singur was a god-forsaken place where sometimes a few groups went to provide apolitical relief, sometimes inquisitive middle classes went to take photographs and interviews. These people are once again “back in the movement”, but only in the whirlwind of Mamata Banerjee. Mamata’s voice was, in the hiatus, practically the only one against the land acquisition in Singur, and it is she who has kept it in the public eye. The Trinamul’s Panchayat success in the region has provided her with a much-needed fillip. In this circumstance, considering the ideological lacuna and class basis of Trinamul, a populist form of politics is inevitable.

Latin America and the pink tide

In a world of neo-liberal hegemony, the interplay between social democratic adjustment and right and left populism is being played out again and again. What is most striking in this interplay is neo-liberalism’s amazing resilience in shaping itself to accommodate all players without losing its central theses.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Latin America. As social democratic elites were publicly announcing that the market could not be challenged, issuing a renewed call for invigorating the politics of adjustment at the Buenos Aires Consensus of 1998, a “pink tide” swept over the continent. Electoral victories ensued for parties which opposed neo-liberalism on paper and at least initially. This “pink tide” clearly demonstrates the limits of parliamentary change in the era of globalization.

Riding the wave were Lula and the PT in Brazil (2002), Hugo Chavez in Venezuela (1998), Gutierrez and then Correa in Ecuador (2002, 2006), Lagos and then Bachelet of the Socialist Party in Chile (2002, 2005), Morales in Bolivia (2005), Kirchner in Argentina (2003), Vazquez in Uruguay (2004), and Ortega and the Sandanistas in Nicaragua (2006). There were near-wins for others too – the FMLN in El Salvador (2004), Obrador in Mexico (2006), Solis in Costa Rica (2006), and Humala in Peru (2006).

A study of the negotiations between populism and social democracy ) in these various countries is instructive. Clearly, the exceptions are Chavez in Venezuela, Morales’ Bolivia, and Correa’s Ecuador, where redistributive politics has been far more radical and oriented towards a goal of transforming state structure

Lula and the PT in Brazil won in 2002 after moving sharply from the Left to the center, forging a base with centrist and rightist forces who were reacting against the debacle of neo-liberal fallout. Chained to global capital, his social democratic government slashed budgets for health and education to maintain a fiscal surplus. The number of wealthy grew in Brazil by 11.3% in 2005 as inequality worsened. Apparently pro-poor relief schemes like the Zero Frame and Bolsa Familia (usual packages that have become part and parcel of the neoliberal agenda) provided relief to millions of families earning well below the legal minimum wage, which in itself is inhumanly low, thus signifying that the State recognizes no minimum income as such. The program is cheap and has won for Lula a type of “new populism”.

Kirchner came to power in Argentina after the debacle of 2002 on the wave of anti-neoliberal promises, but his program so far has been limited to minor policy modifications. The economic recovery of Argentina appears to be taking a renewed “populist” or even Keynsian turn, with a number of departures from the IMF’s monetarist orthodoxy (managing exchange rate through central bank intervention, fiscal and monetary policies aimed at controlling inflation, etc.). However, the central tenets of neo-liberal orthodoxy remain untouched – privatization of public utilities, deregulation of pension and mutual funds, etc. At most, the new economic order is an attempt at keeping neo-liberal financialization within manageable limits

In Ecuador, Gutierrez mobilized the country’s indigenous movements with a promise to reverse neo-liberal policies, but capitulated after winning elections. Many leading Sandanistas in Nicaragua are heavily invested in tourism, agro-industry, finances, etc. and their class interests will not allow them to challenge capital.

The illusion lies in the fact that the legitimacy of these social democratic or populist governments consists in sustaining revolutionary discourse and a few distributive reforms. The politics of relief and adjustment within the ambit of neo-liberalism extends from Latin America to Turkey to India.

Horizontalism and emancipation

One of the characteristics of the Singur, Nandigram, and other anti-acquisition movements in India has been the participation of masses of the dispossessed in broad, horizontally organized networks. In the ongoing Chengara struggle of Kerala, 20,000 landless people have organized to squat in the Laha Estate, spearheaded by a collective called the Sadhu Jana Vimochana Samyuktha Vedi (SJVSV). In October 2007, over 25,000 tribals marched to Delhi led by a collective called Ekta Parishad, on the demand of land settlement courts and implementation of the Forest Act. In Orissa, thousands of peasants have protested against the POSCO project, under the Pratirodh Sangram Samiti led by the CPI’s Abhay Sahu. The Narmada Bachao Andolan has worked for over 20 years in opposing big dams and displacement of people, mobilizing thousands of farmers and members of the middle class.

The Jameen Adhikar Andolan of Maharashtra, the Jan Sangharsh Samiti of Rajasthan, the peoples’ movements in Kashipur, Kalinganagar, etc. – the political landscape of India in the last 20 years is dotted with “a million mutinies”. In every state small and large peoples’ movements have emerged against the encroachment of predatory capitalism.

Noticably, in most of these anti-displacement movements there is an understanding that social relations can be transformed from civil rather than political society. In their absence of a bid for state power, they resemble a sort of inverse of vanguardist models. The inability of ordinary citizens and the dispossessed to directly influence the government’s policies, vis-à-vis groups of capital, demonstrates the strength of the neo-liberal process of democratization, where a liberal democracy like India is able to mostly control social mobilization (with notable exceptions like Nandigram), discipline and integrate new social players, and pre-empt revolutionary changes. Neo-liberal policy adjustments in the face of fierce local resistance facilitate material benefits for targeted groups, building channels of local clientelist exchange.

It is in this specific place that the Trinamul’s call for a return of 400 acres should be placed. Formations like the KJJRC of Singur, formed across the country by local resistance to displacement, no matter how radical their composition and demands, are always open to two kinds of subversions in the absence of vertical networks of battle and a dispute over state power: (1) populist takeover, bringing the movement within the ambit of clientelist exchange, patronization (which may be successful – the Singur siege’s denouement will tell), and electoral adjustment or (2) relief adjustment from the State and big capital, which may throw in a few thousand rupees more as compensation or move a few miles down the road where resistance may be less fierce.

Movements in Latin America, from indigenous rights movements to the Zapatistas and the piqueteros of Argentina are instructive in this regard. Zapatismo, for which horizontalism is almost a dogma, has experienced a declining influence in Mexican society, with global capital making major incursions within Chiapas itself. In Argentina, thousands of neighbourhood assemblies and workers solidarities flourished in the wake of the uprising of 2001, mobilizing horizontally through the piqueteros, factory occupations, and other grassroots struggle. Much of this resistance space has been co-opted and fragmented through the clientelist tentacles of Kirchner’s Peronist faction, while the factories haven’t been able to offer the remotest alternative to the country’s integration in global capital. On the opposite spectrum, Ecuador’s Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities (CONAIE) was able to bring Correa to power, while guarding its own autonomous mobilization. Bolivia followed the same path, through Evo Morales.

At some point popular movements in India must also figure out where the vertical and the horizontal intersect. The questions they have to negotiate are much the same questions facing the Left the world over, from Venezuela to Mexico. In post-vanguardist formations, how can political collectives dispute state power, foster internal democracy, and strengthen the autonomous mobilization of social movements, all at the same time? Can horizontalism be a project of emancipation?

1 Comment »

One Response to “The ongoing Singur siege: populist, social democratic, and horizontal responses to neo-liberalism”

  1. cbn Says:
    September 1st, 2008 at 07:48

    In this period of time in history of the world, no one in power will be able to withstand globalisation of capitalism, they can only minimize the extent of it.
    No matter which party is in power.

    Whoever is fighting that does not understand beyond their little hole they are in. We are caught in the hightide of capitalism. If true socialism happens again, it will not happen before this capitalism has lived its life.

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