Is Mamata Banerjee looking to erase the Singur chapter with Ford pitch?


West Bengal’s chief minister Mamata Banerjee met a devotee of Krishna earlier this week to ask for the boon of an automobile plant in the state. It made sense.

The devotee is Ambarish Das, a.k.a. Alfred Ford, a director of Ford Motor Co., and a cousin to William Clay Ford Jr., who is executive chairman. The meeting took place in Mayapur, north of Kolkata, headquarters of Iskcon, or International Society for Krishna Consciousness, a sect into which Alfred was formally inducted in the 1970s.

It was also Banerjee’s attempt at erasing the nightmare of Singur and the aborted Nano plant of Tata Motors Ltd that was to be located there. That episode over 2007-08 still haunts Bengal 10 years after, and shadows its renewed pitch as a business-friendly state—despite much effort since Banerjee took office in 2011. Her Trinamool Congress electorally steamrolled a three-decade-old Communist government which, in its latter day avatar attempted to be business-friendly, and had held up the Nano project as a can-do example.

Singur also remains a business and human rights case study worth scrutiny. This was underscored by a Supreme Court judgement on 31 August 2016, which directed that land acquired for the car project be returned to farmers. Tata Motors had years earlier relocated the Nano plant to Sanand in Gujarat, drawn by the invitation of Narendra Modi, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) chief minister at the time, and now prime minister of India with a BJP-led government against which Banerjee has openly declared animosity.

Banerjee would still be smarting from the smarts displayed by Modi, whose party she has accused of misdirection. After the Gujarat riots of 2002, Modi was able to turn around his reputation in great part riding on sops to businesses and endorsements from major Indian and global businesses and their CEOs. Few care to remember today that, along with cost of human lives, those days in Gujarat also saw attacks on industrial complexes. Mobs even burnt several trucks carrying over 60 Opel cars manufactured at General Motors’ Halol plant. And then the Nano coup scant years later! And then Ford too, now neighbours since 2015 with a plant in Sanand.

The Nano project fracas was, of course, not all Bengal’s fault, or exclusively of the Communist government or even Trinamool’s. At Singur, Marxist cadres strong-armed land acquisition—with threats, beatings, molestation, rape and killing. Their opponent at the time, Trinamool, used the incident to reinforce its own political strength. I have detailed the case in Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India and a more recent book, The Bengalis: A Portrait of a Community.

As the Supreme Court noted, the government of West Bengal sent a letter dated 23 March 2006 to Tata Motors offering a “special category” project with great benefit to the company. The letter recorded that there was agreement “… from TML to set up a plant on 600 acres of land near Kharagpur to manufacture a new car addressing the lower end of the market, with annual capacity of 250,000 units on maturity… the targeted date of commencement of commercial production being the year 2008.”

Six days later the chief minister of West Bengal at the time, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee—wrote to Tata Motors chairman Ratan Tata: “During our discussion today, you had mentioned the allocation close to Kolkata may be considered,” Bhattacharjee wrote, which the court cited. “As you are undoubtedly aware, land around Kolkata is difficult to come by and the cost of such land is also very high. Also, land has to be suitable for industry…”

Bhattacharjee continued: “ … based on the suggestion given by Shri Ravi Kant”—Tata Motors’ managing director at the time—“during his meeting with Shri Nirupam Sen”—industries minister at the time—“we have now selected a site right next to Kharagpur town, on National Highway 6.” It was close to Kolkata via an expressway, as well as Haldia port and the Tata hub in Jamshedpur. Bhattacharjee added: “I can assure you that this is one of the best locations in West Bengal.”

Tata Motors executives instead opted for Singur. As the court noted, “good connectivity and proximity to airport, as well as quality urban and physical infrastructure” won. But farmland had to be acquired. Singur was a Trinamool patch, which the Communists wanted to gain using the Singur project as leverage.

The company bet on the government to come through for it. The government bet on the company. Both lost, because Banerjee fought back, and her party rode Singur’s mayhem, similar business-related human rights violations in Nandigram, and anti-incumbency, to come to power. Tata Motors shrugged off culpability and went to Gujarat.

Now Banerjee wants a spark of Gujarat in Bengal. She is hoping for Ford’s consciousness of that fact.

Sudeep Chakravarti’s books include Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India, Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights, runs on Thursdays.livemint