Friday, October 31, 2008

A New Home For Nano

Nano to Nowhere?

From The Statesman
ND Batra

The Nano is dead and will live happily hereafter in Gujarat.The crisis in Singur, West Bengal, nonetheless, drew global attention especially in comparison with China where a similar project would have been consummated long ago. No one would have heard of the protesters. Mamata Banerjee of Trinamool Congress, who spearheaded the opposition, would have been in jail in China, perhaps, waiting for international humanitarian rescue. Now you understand why foreign direct investors prefer to set up their manufacturing facilities in China rather than anywhere else. The noise and chaos of unruly democracy is not heard in China. Ratan Tata would have received a friendly welcome in China. Perhaps I am exaggerating. Mr. Tata received a warmer reception in Gujarat than he would have gotten in China.

Moving the Nano to Sanand, Gujarat, should leave no doubt that industrialization in India too can be hastened but only by consensus and persuasion; and not by decree, as the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government in West Bengal, in spite of its good intentions, tried to do. In a democratic country, a well-organized opposition party can wield tremendous negative political power, the power to frustrate the government, which of course is not the same as the power of creative destruction. But losing a shining icon of progress and modernity, which had stirred global imagination, to Gujarat or any other state, was the last thing on the mind of anyone in West Bengal. I thought everyone would come down from their hobby horses and compromise in the interest of the people of West Bengal. But political brinkmanship of mutual recrimination and humiliation became the endgame. It will be sometime before such a beautiful thing happens again in the state of West Bengal. Many Bengalis must be angry with the government; and they should be. A Kolkata friend, a financial expert and lover of poetry, recently wrote to me in desperation, saying: “Over the last three decades CPI (M) turned West Bengal into a graveyard of industries, which had gone to the top position in industrialization among all the Indian states during the time of Dr. Bidhan Chandra Roy. With no nobler object, but to tide over the election round the corner CPI(M) wanted to showcase the Nano even by ruthless destruction of agriculture and dislodgement of the farmers from the most fertile land in the country, a most horrifying recent record of cruelty and human rights violation.” The Nano shouldn’t have become a contest between the sickle and the hammer.

A few years ago I heard a similar cry of pain from a Kolkata industrialist whose chinaware and pottery works factory, which once upon a time was known for its quality all over India, was systematically decimated by the CPI (M) government supported goons. To be fair, I have been in no position to verify the allegation. After all, many industries are doing very well in West Bengal, though, you might say, in spite of the government. Gujarat has not only gained the Nano but has also refurbished its sullied image. Before Gujarat became the new home for the Nano, the state had permanently become associated with the communal riots of 2002 when the fire-bombing of a train carrying the returning Hindu pilgrims had led to widespread riots killing of more than two thousand people, mostly Muslims. One wondered how the gentle Gujarati known derisively as a passive and timid shopkeeper could suddenly turn into a ferocious monster. But when Mr. Tata told his admiring audience in Ahmedabad (Gujarat) last week that bringing the Nano to Sanand was like homecoming, it seemed the gods of industry might forgive Gujarat after all. “We chose Gujarat because of the conducive and industry-friendly environment as well as infrastructure. Also, the location of the land (1100 acres) that was being offered was very attractive,” Mr. Tata said. The Tatas are Gujarati-speaking Parsis, but industrialists are seldom sentimental when they invest their millions. Safety and growth of their investments is their primary concern. “This is Tata Motors’ maiden venture in Gujarat, and will broad-base the company’s manufacturing footprint. We are happy to contribute to Gujarat’s strong industrial progress by creating an auto cluster, which will have a cascading impact on the state’s economy,” Mr. Tata added. But that is exactly what was supposed to have happened in West Bengal if the politicians had not played the Russian roulette with the state’s future.

However, not everyone is so forgiving. Visiting Gujarat recently, historian William Dalrymple, the author of The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857, was quoted in the local media having said, “Chief Minister Narendra Modi might have proved that he is an efficient administrator by bringing the project to state, but the world is still waiting for him to bring justice to riot victims and punish the culprits.” Some people implicate Mr. Modi for being silent too long and not taking aggressive steps in stopping the killing in the 2002 riots.

Perhaps the greatest humiliation for the West Bengal government came when Mr. Modi had the gall to advise Mr. Bhattacharjee and opposition leader Ms. Banerjee to cooperate for the good of state. In an open letter to Bhattacharjee, Mr. Modi said, "The condition for the growth of (the) Nano has not yet developed in West Bengal in view of its present work culture despite your serious efforts.” He did not explain what is wrong with the Bengali work culture when the state is one of the most highly industrialized states in the country. He apologetically said, “People of West Bengal may think I have snatched (the) Nano to Gujarat. But it is not so. There is no scope of misunderstanding." In a similar open letter to Ms. Banerjee, he advised her to "shun ultra-leftism” in outdoing “the Leftists and show West Bengal the rightist way to usher in development." One wonders at the audacity of the man whom the US government has been treating as a pariah, refusing to give him a visa for visiting the United States. Maybe Mr. Modi is not such a bad person. He has many admirers. In any case he has the interest of Gujarat above all. Mr. Modi said that he supports the Nano in the “national spirit,” adding that “After ship-breaking, pharma, petrochemicals and textiles, this project will make Gujarat a force to reckon with in the surface transport sector as well as automobiles.” But who is listening? Chief Minister Bhattacharjee? Ms. Bannerjee? They have their own political axes to grind.

(ND Batra, the author of Digital Freedom, teaches communications and diplomacy at Norwich University. He is working on a new book, This is the American Way, Stranger.)

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