For fifty years, ever since he won his first election to Parliament, the same jibe has been hurled at Atal Bihari Vajpayee: 'A good man in a bad party!' From time to time, this would be accompanied by mock-sympathetic invitations to join Party X or Party Y or Party Z.
The former prime minister is a tolerant man. Someone less forgiving would be tempted to turn the tables on his tormentors today, and muse aloud that Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee too is a 'good man in a bad party', and invite the beleaguered chief minister of West Bengal to leave his carping comrades for more congenial company!
I refer, of course, to Nandigram. The CPI-M is currently tying itself up in knots over the issue, its carefully cultivated image as the 'people's champion' torn to shreds by the sight of all hell breaking loose in the green fields of Nandigram.
Even its allies in the Left Front are enjoying the discomfiture of the Marxist Big Brother, while the Congress has been dropping broad hints that any tie-up with the CPI-M is limited to Delhi, and definitely does not extend to West Bengal and Kerala.
The non-CPI-M parties are having so much fun abusing the CPI-M that they probably did not hear a couple of interesting statements, two by Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and one by the party boss in Kerala, Pinarayi Vijayan. Both men, however, are senior politicians and we must at least pay them the courtesy of hearing them out.
Here, first, is what the chief minister of West Bengal had to say about the genesis of the problem in Nandigram. It was, he said bluntly, the handiwork of Muslim fundamentalists.
You must also know that Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee said this not once, but twice. Even more interestingly, on each occasion it was to American listeners. I understand that the first statement came at a meeting with an Indo-American business council. The second, more intriguingly, was to a high official, with links to the US intelligence establishment, who had called on the chief minister.
Can you imagine the furore had a BJP chief minister said anything of the kind? (Actually, can you imagine the howls of outrage had a BJP functionary at any level met an American official?) Yet Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee's remarks won little or no attention in a media titillated by Bob Woolmer's murder.
Please note that the chief minister of West Bengal is one of the few 'secular' functionaries with any credibility on the issue of Muslim fundamentalism in India. He had previously spoken of the dangers of unchecked illegal immigration from Bangladesh, not once but repeatedly so.
Let us now turn to Kerala, Pinarayi Vijayan's bastion. According to the party boss, the West Bengal firing in Nandigram was in 'self-defence.' Please ponder a little over the implications of that statement. Pinarayi Vijayan is one of the 16 current members of the CPI-M Politburo, a man who has himself been a minister in Kerala. And he is saying that the agitators in Nandigram were equipped with modern arms, not just the crude spears and scythes they waved before the television cameras.
For more than half a century, Communists of all stripes have had two whipping-boys, namely 'Western imperialism' and 'Hindu fundamentalism'. But today two senior CPI-M functionaries are blaming neither; they are laying all the blame at the doors of well-armed Muslim fundamentalists, probably instigated from abroad. If they are correct then the tragedy of Nandigram has only begun to unfold.
I have given you one side of the story. In the interests of fairness, here is an attempt at presenting the other side.
Let us grant that there is a heavy Muslim presence in Nandigram, where, I was told, roughly 40 per cent of the population is Muslim. But opposition to the CPI-M cut across the Hindu-Muslim divide, and the 60 per cent of the population that is Hindu appeared to be as vehemently anti-CPI-M as anyone else.
If reports are true, CPI-M workers in the area actually thought it necessary to band together in a safe camp!
Second, there is the peculiar incident that happened when Mamata Bannerjee tried to reach Nandigram. The CPI-M immediately accused her of fishing in troubled waters, and CPI-M workers prevented her entourage from getting to Nandigram. I repeat: It was not the police but the CPI-M proper that stopped her.
In other words, Nandigram was an area under siege by the Marxist cadre -- which casts a smidgen of doubt on Pinarayi Vijayan's portrait of his West Bengal comrades coming under fire.
There is one final point that I would like to make, namely that we should not ignore the economics while debating the politics. Special Economic Zones are here to stay. Lay aside Nandigram, or even West Bengal as a whole. The fact is that several chief ministers have recently written to Delhi, demanding that the Union government give the green signal to their own Special Economic Zones. That includes states such as Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, both of which have chief ministers belonging to the United Progressive Alliance.
The brutal fact is that agriculture has reached its limit as far as employment generation is concerned; the industrial and services sectors need to grow if future generations of India must get jobs, and if Special Economic Zones can give the process a boost, so be it.
But if Special Economic Zones are here to stay, why should the State get involved in acquiring land? Let the barons of industry negotiate directly with the owners of the land. If the current proprietors do not wish to sell, let industrialists persuade them to lease it. Or perhaps they could offer a combination of rent plus dividends, something that would make the peasants feel as if they have some stake in industrial enterprises coming up in their area.
The private sector often boasts of its capacity for innovation. Well, here is the opportunity to be proven correct. Persuade the peasant proprietors to part with property if you can manage it. But this business of asking the State to grab the land has got to stop!