Lakshman Seth and the Sheriff of Nandigram: Raghu Karnad
NOTES FROM NANDIGRAM
This is a guest post by RAGHU KARNAD
May 17, 2009
Beauty is all about the details, and these beautiful election results keep parading out sweet new details for our appreciation. What I’m currently delighted about is the voters of Tamluk in West Bengal dispatching their Communist MP, Lakshman Seth.
Seth has been in the Lok Sabha since 1998, stashin’ away the crores and adding fortifications to his eerie headquarters in Haldia. People say he did a good job of developing the Haldia port. Sure enough, if the business of America is business, then the industriousness of Lakshman Seth is directed purely towards industrialization. How come? Seth is also Chairman of the Haldia Development Authority. Because he allegedly gets a cut out of every industrial operation on his turf (what we dissertation-writers call ‘rent-seeking’). There’s a theory that this is why Nandigram was chosen as the site for the Salim plant, and why the resistance was so bitterly punished when the siege fell (but this is just very plausible hearsay).
I was in Nandigram last year when panchayat elections were being held. Seth’s Sheriff of Nottingham — a police inspector named Debasis Chakrabarty — was in fine form. The party had promised to withdraw him for the duration of the polling, but he was strutting the stage like John Gielgud. He was followed, as he always is, by a personal videographer: capturing his brutishness for the memories, I guess. I watched him as he publically framed a colleague, a CRPF officer who had stopped CPI(M) mob from lynching two Trinamool men.
And I heard a bit from Lakshman Seth directly, too. I was interviewing the CRPF commander, Alok Raj, who had descended on the district, patrolling continuously to keep the peace. A brave man, possibly a hero. In the middle of the interview, Raj’s phone rings: Lakshman Seth. Raj puts the phone’s loudspeaker on, so that all the reporters who have piled into my scene can hear Seth command him to remain in his camp. Raj refuses. Seth threatens him. Raj hangs up. Later, Seth brings charges of insubordination against Raj in front of the CRPF high command.
The CPI(M) was pretty much wallopped in the polls, losing a third of the 2,303 panchayats they had controlled, including those in Nandigram. At the time I — and everybody else — wrote that this couldn’t bode well for the Lok Sabha elections. But the Tamluk party committee changed nothing about its losing formula: first they opposed the Politburo’s limp attempt to give the ticket to somebody else, and the ticket went back to Seth. Then they let Seth release his wolves on Nandigram again, and the grungy district hospital was flooded again with the victims of nighttime shootings and beatings. And once again, they lost, and Seth is finally out of power (and so is everybody else).
The thing about men like Seth — “strongmen” to the media, but to me something more like feudal lords in the industrial age — is that after a decade, their control of a district apparatus is so strong, it is impossible for even the party’s central command to oppose them. To purge a guy like Seth might require a declaration of inter-party warfare, a war in which he would obtain as many allies as you. He keeps his district in the party-fold, so it is better for you to just shut up and mind your biznazz on Alimuddin Street.
Which is why I wonder if the K.O.-punch that the CPI(M) just took in West Bengal signals the end of its road — or whether it signals renewed possibilities, a chance to cut off the Lakshman Seths in large numbers and liberate itself from the tyranny of the grassroots. Certainly the party wasn’t going to win Nandigram polls at any level until Seth was gone, even if they tried to do it at gunpoint. Now they have a chance to replace him with somebody for whom the electorate feels something less than hysterical resentment. The same argument may apply to the rest of their incumbents. Cue the news-y closing line: for the CPI(M), its time to start injecting fresh blood, and stop spilling it.
May 27, 2009
Update: as further indication that this election could be chemo for the CPI(M) — ending the malignancy without killing the party — the Telegraph reports today that the CM wants to sack Seth’s Chairmanship of the HDA.