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Death of a brand

Death of a brand

Author: Abhijit Dasgupta
Publication: India Today
Date: September 10, 2009
URL: http://indiatoday.intoday.in/site/story?sId=61131&secid=21

Introduction: Buddha's dream of Destination Bengal lies shattered as several CPL(M) leaders come under a cloud in a sordid land grab case

It takes too many to tango in West Bengal. The promise of sunshine industries and with it, development and jobs by the thousands, now remains only on paper. It's sunset time in West Bengal. After the pullout of Tata's Nano, the scrapping of the DLF township project at Dankuni and the DLF Special Economic Zone (SEZ) at Rajarhat, West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, a crestfallen and dejected man since the elections in May, has more egg on his face.

After the worst electoral defeat in 32 years, his time was all but up on September 7, when his Government had to withdraw the much-touted Rs 1,000-crore Kolkata IT Links project with Wipro and Infosys. The information technology giants had to retrace their steps as scandal erupted in the aftermath of the Vedic Village incident on August 23 in which one person died.

The facts of the case are now the stuff of national shame. The Vedic Village country resort at Rajarhat, near which the IT township was to come up is less than an hour's journey from Kolkata and was a favourite haunt for the city's glitterati. On August 24, a local football match here ended in mob violence as a miffed mafioso ordered shooting at jeering villagers to avenge defeat in the game.

In a matter of hours, the resort was reduced to ruins. After the incident it came to light that the resort's owner, R.K. Modi, now in jail, was involved in landgrabbing to the extent of 1,500 acres with the help of Gaffar Mollah, a local goon. Gaffar, who was arrested the next morning, named as many as six ministers of the ruling Left Front who were allegedly involved in landgrabbing. Opposition leader Mamata Banerjee expelled three local members of her party for harbouring links with the land grab coterie of the CPI (M).

The chief minister-in-waiting, however, kept uncharacteristically quiet for a full fortnight. She finally held a rally near the village on September 8, calling for a CBI probe and a white paper on all land deals of the state Government. Nobody told her that Gaffar, immediately after his arrest, had named Ajibul Islam alias Khudey as one of the instigators. Khudey is the brother of Banerjee's party MLA, Arabul Islam.

The latter, along with powerful CPI (M) Minister Goutam Deb, had ensured the "peaceful transition" of land from villagers to private investors with the state Government in between. "I had told Arabul many times not to meet Deb… He has now seen the result for himself. All I can say is that we will not allow anybody to have links with the CPI (M)," said Banerjee. Arabul, however, was also present at Didi's September 8 meeting. He has not been expelled yet.

On September 9, home secretary Ardhendu Sen announced that there was no case against Arabul. "If nothing has been proved against him, how can he be arrested?" said Sen, uttering in the same breath that no CPI (M) minister or bigwig has been found guilty as yet.

So, everybody except hapless Vedic Village owner Modi seems innocent. Whispers in police circles, however, indicate otherwise. Apparently Gaffar's list could spell doom for both the CPI (M) and the Trinamool. Unless, of course, some other type of deal ensures that the unsavoury stuff remains within the confines of the interrogation room. Khudey remains untraceable.

The Vedic Village incident shows that the Government has no control over the rural leadership and that panchayat governance has gone for a toss. Till the other day, before Bhattacharya's favourite IT department stopped the infotech township project in which 20,000 jobs had been proposed with an initial investment of Rs 1,000 crore, the man in the eye of the storm was Land Reforms Minister Abdur Rejjak Mollah.

He held a press conference shortly after his name came up for having broken land ceiling laws to facilitate flow of funds to the Village owners. It was quite obvious at that time that the CPI (M) show of unity was cracking. While the Left Front itself has fought many internecine battles, never has the CPI (M) been at war with itself. But the minister prefaced his press conference with a bombshell of a remark saying, "I am ready with all the arms."

The arms proved to be few and hardly of any consequence as he could do little to clear his role in the scam which got bigger by the minute. Flaunting files, all that Mollah could say was that he had acted in the state Government's "interest". This, when he gave away 44 acres of vested government land above the ceiling limit for almost free at Rs 97 lakh against the official buying rate of Rs 25 crore.

"If I had gone in for litigation and not settled the court case outside with compensation, it would have dragged on while the Village promoters would have continued with mischief… what I did was to gather funds for the Government, which would have never come if the case had dragged on," said Mollah. Nobody gave his version any credence because a matter of 44 acres and a Rs 25-crore loss to the exchequer suddenly seemed a relatively small act of stubbornness.

Bhattacharya immediately knew that this was beyond damage: it was utter destruction. His sunrise industry of information technology with a major proposed hub at Rajarhat suddenly seemed to dim overnight as ministers Deb and Mollah fought over who gave which orders and party chief Biman Bose flew to the Politburo meeting in Delhi without his chief minister (for the second time in succession, raising further eyebrows) and made loud noises of "correction" within the party. With Bhattacharya's Destination Bengal showpiece as well as his Do It Now slogan falling flat, there is also an open hunt in the party for deputy chief minister. All point to his redundancy within the party and that he wants to pull out of the dogmatic matrix of Marxism.

All this while, arch enemy Banerjee kept quiet over an incident which anybody would have thought was God's gift for her. Perhaps she was practising restraint for the coming years as the next chief minister. Leader of Opposition in the Assembly Partha Chatterjee explained it away in simple terms which would have raised some hopes if only they were just about a true assessment.

"Why should we comment and why lead a movement when the facts are speaking for themselves? Yes, Arabul is an MLA of the party but our leader has made it clear that he had been warned not to hobnob with the CPI (M) minister. Our leader is not taking any steps to protect him. The law should take its own turn. As for our movement, Mamata Banerjee has given a call to sit and chalk out a strategy to launch a mass-scale agitation against the CPI (M)'s land grab policy and we shall be doing so."

Then, as an afterthought, he added, "But after this, do we even need to fish in these troubled waters? The CPI (M) has made matters so murky for itself that it will hardly find the ground beneath its feet if it tries to defend itself."

The exit of now-miffed giants Wipro and Infosys is many steps backward for a Government that has time and again talked of Destination Bengal for investors. That is a pipedream now. Union IT Minister A. Raja did speak to state Information Technology Minister Debesh Das and promised him a "fair review" but the IT dream, at least for now, is a closed chapter for whatever is left of Bhattacharya's Brand Bengal.

Front partner Forward Bloc, which is openly critical of the chief minister, has asked for a CBI probe into the entire question of land-grabbing at gunpoint. Says state general secretary, Ashok Ghosh, "The problem is worse; there are no other chapters in this book to look forward to. There is no land for industry to come up, and even if there is, there will now be no investors. It's just a sad and tough wait for 2011 when the Assembly elections are due. We have to look ahead and rebuild our image which has touched its nadir now."

In 2011, Banerjee will most probably step in as chief minister to preside over the ruins of a 32-year-old promise gone awry because the creamy layer of a party, which in the first place ought not to have developed one if only as policy, just wanted to get creamier.

Trinamool leader Chatterjee said, "This was bound to happen. The Government has many Gaffars on its payroll. These dons rule by the law of the gun and a Government, with only land to offer to industrialists in its image makeover plan, needs these dons. Gaffar is merely one of them. The root of the problem is the cosmetic industrialisation plan. The Government does not have the infrastructure, neither does it have a plan. It only has land which it calls its own but is actually forcibly grabbed from poor farmers. The Gaffars are mere catalysts."

The Vedic Village case, as of now involving only 44 acres of land which has allegedly been illegally acquired by the resort owners, could actually go up to a 1,500 acres which is now being investigated. The Village's owner and Managing Director Modi, who is now in jail, has told interrogators he was "too busy" with his various businesses and did not have time to go through each and every transaction. But sources say that he, in collusion with government officials, mafia dons and CPI (M) functionaries may have grabbed as much as 1,500 acres in Rajarhat alone at prices which are at least 50 times less than the market value.

Said Chatterjee, "Modi is just a front of the Government. Let an impartial probe take place and bigwigs will fall. Many other ministers and businessmen ought to come under the scanner." He was obviously referring to the likes of ministers Deb, Manab Mukherjee and Debesh Das who have held housing, and information and technology departments over the years that the Rajarhat bubble grew.

Deb, in fact, as housing minister, has had a hand in land acquisitions in Singur and Nandigram. He is also seen as a master strategist on how to get land for the Government through "peaceful means". In other words, at gunpoint without a murmur of protest.


The Countdown

The reform project that went wrong

· The state had to withdraw the Rs 1,000-crore Kolkata IT Links project with information technology giants Wipro and Infosys after the Vedic Village incident on August 23.

· In June, Maoists took control of Lalgarh in West Midnapore district and turned it into a fortress after alleged police brutality over an assassination attempt on the chief minister.

· Putting paid to the chief minister's dream of 40,000 jobs and hopes of boosting the state's sunrise sector, DLF shelved its Rs 40,000-crore Dankuni township project and the Rs 700-crore DLF SEZ at Rajarhat earlier this year, citing land issues.

· The Tata pullout last October from Singur and Nandigram, following protests and police firing over land acquisition was one of the first nails in the CPI (M)'S coffin.

· In 2007, the West Bengal Government decided to allow the Salim Group to set up a chemical hub at Nandigram under the SEZ policy. Local opposition to the project led to clashes with the police that left 14 villagers dead and the project buried forever.

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