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Jangled nerves in Bengal

Soutik Biswas | 05:04 UK time, Thursday, 7 May 2009

A farmer in Singur outside the site of the Nano factoryThere a lot of jangled nerves in Bengal today. "At 7 am today, Bengal enters the most crucial - and the scariest - phase of the 2009 elections," a morning newspaper here says rather dramatically. It is the second phase of elections in this eastern state, and 17 of its 42 constituencies spread over several districts are polling today. In 2004, the Communists won 14 of the 17 seats. "That was then," as an analyst writes in The Telegraph today.

What is making the Communists skittish about today's polls in Bengal? Two places to be precise. Singur and Nandigram are voting. They make today's polling the toughest ever for the Communists who have ruled the state without a break for more than three decades. In both places, the government tried to acquire land for industry and faced stiff resistance from farmers. The fiasco in Singur ended with the factory that was supposed to make the world's cheapest car, the Nano, moving out of the state. And the dispute in Nandigram had a bloody denouement with the police firing on protesting farmers.

Singur and Nandigram have become synonymous with the hubris of, and confusion among, the Communists in West Bengal. They are also, as the analyst says, the "two iconic zones of conflict that have radically transformed the terms of the debate in the state". In both these places, many farmers see the government as a traitor, a provider turned depriver.

The Communists have ruled for so long largely on the back of a rather successful land reforms programme, where land was redistributed among the poor and marginal farmers. Land and food security is a sensitive issue for people in Bengal; the state suffered chronic food shortages and suffered from famines from the 1940s till the end of the 1960s. It was home to a rigorous political agitation over food security - it was even called the "food movement". The Communists seemed to have forgotten this critical bit of history in their haste to industrialise.

In the village council polls last May, both Singur and Nandigram voted heavily against the Communists. Will today see a repeat of that?

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