From JB to BB

Politics of Continuity and Change

When a change of guard takes place after about a quarter century, everyone is prone to point out the contrasts. And Buddhadev Bhattacharya (BB), the new Chief Minister of West Bengal, is indeed a very different man compared to old guard, Jyoti Basu (JB) – and this not just in terms of age or stature alone. The blue-blooded barrister Basu, who learnt his Marx from R. P. Dutt and Professor Laski in London in the late 1930s, is reputed for his moderate pragmatism. Buddhadev, nephew of Bengal’s most beloved communist poet Sukanta Bhattacharya, joined the student movement in Calcutta during the fiery days of the early ‘60s and is – or was – believed to be an impetuous hardliner. For the former, the prime concern has, for long, been to woo and attract big capital to Bengal; the latter loves translating Mayakovsky and socialising with cultural personalities. BB has even had the distinction of resigning from the cabinet of ministers in 1992 – ostensibly in protest against the government’s dubious ways – and rejoining it about a year later. So not a few eyebrows were raised when BB was chosen, over other aspirants like the Finance Minister Ashim Dasgupta or Somnath Chatterjee, the Chairman of the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation – to succeed the Big B of Bengal.

But historical precedents tell us that in the complex game of political succession, conspicuous contrasts often serve to camouflage continuity at a deeper level. When, in the 1941 AICC session, MK Gandhi made the categorical statement that “…. not Rajaji (C. Rajagopalachari) but Jawaharlal will be my successor”, many were extremely shocked. Was not the super-modern “socialist” Jawaharlal’s whole approach to life entirely different from that of the saintly apostle of ancient Indian values? Gandhi recognised the contradictions, but asserted, “…when I am gone he will speak my language”. His firm belief, as he had expressed it way back in 1929, was that although Jawaharlal was “rash and impetuous”, “responsibility will mellow and sober the youth”. It seems that similar considerations weighed with the father-figure of Left Front Government (LFG) when he selected the prodigal son – who returned repentant after a year in wilderness – as his heir apparent.

Stepping into Basu’s big shoes, Bhattacharya naturally stressed continuity in policy and personnel. There has been absolutely no change in distribution of portfolios. Even Basu continues as a super CM, enjoying almost all the amenities and privileges he used to enjoy, issuing instructions and spelling out policies on behalf of the LFG, and settling disputes between senior ministers. The last-named function assumes particular importance in the context of the rebellious ways of Sports and Transport Minister Subhas Chakraborty (SC) who would obey none other than JB. To take one example or two, just after the retirement of Basu, Chakraborty organised a Rhitik Roshan extravaganza in Calcutta openly disregarding the displeasure expressed by BB and other “hardliners”, and went to the extent of opposing the 20 December Bengal bandh (since withdrawn) called by Left-led mass organisations. In the Rhitik controversy Basu supported SC, citing Mao (“let a hundred flowers blossom”), and in the other case, got SC change his stand. As usual, his ruling was accepted as final and binding on both sides. For the LF and its support base there is thus a reassuring impression that the tested steward is still in control and this also acts as a stabilising factor for the faction-ridden state unit of the CPI(M).

The key theme in continuity, picked up by BB, is industrialisation. To dispel the doubts of the industrial lobby regarding the new CM, he went further than JB in declaring that his government was “in favour of privatisation” and won’t tolerate militant workers’ struggle. His party has also come up with a ‘theoretical’ explanation: the working class, being the leader of revolution, must not mind sacrificing its economic interests for the sake of ‘development’; industrialisation as the next stage in prosperity in the post-land reform scenario. Obviously, the CPI(M) is planning to contest the next elections (due in April 2001) on this plank, which it hopes might also woo back the unemployed youth from the Trinamool fold.

Will Basu’s retirement just before the polls mar the prospects of the LF? His party as well as other partners seemed to be working under such an impression and therefore resisted it for more than a year. More discerning observers, however, feel that the grand old man still sees further than his younger colleagues in Calcutta and Delhi. The smooth succession before the polls – which JB had been insisting on – would stand the LF in better stead than allowing uncertainty and speculation to linger on, while his active presence as extra-constitutional head would minimise the feeling of a void or gap. And since BB would be spending only about five months in office when the state goes to the polls, the opposition would find it difficult to portray a convincing picture of “failures of the Bhattacharya government”. Moreover, freed from his administrative responsibilities, JB would be in a position to devote all available time to election campaigns (which, he has in fact, already started doing). In a word, the way he selected, groomed (particularly during the year in probation as deputy CM) and handed over charge to his successor at an opportune moment should be reckoned as his last master stroke as CM.

Whether one agrees with this observation or opts for the alternative assessment that Basu resigned in premonition of an impending electoral defeat of the LF, there is no denying that the new CM has started his innings with great care. He has just given final touches to his Bengali rendering of Kafka’s Metamorphosis (the title has nothing to do, we are told, with his personal evolution) and is trying to come out of the shell of aristocratic intellectualism. In an attempt to emulate arch-rival Mamata Banerjee (MB), he now rushes to meet people afflicted by floods or other calamities, and makes unscheduled halts during official or political tours to give patient hearings to the masses – including supporters of the Trinamool Congress (TMC). These are precisely the things none would expect of him or his predecessor. Inside the LF he is trying to shun an arrogant image and is harping on “collective leadership”. To address some of the most widespread popular grievances, he has taken steps to restore work-culture in government offices, to ensure proper maintenance of state hospitals, and so on. People are sceptical about the real worth of these populist measures, but at the same time, there is an impression that the new CM is trying to make good, with more energetic initiatives, what he lacks in terms of stature and maturity.

Like the parties in power, the opposition is also gearing up for the forthcoming elections. Mamata Bannerjee is trying to corner the state government on charges of callousness and blatant partisanship in organising flood relief. The charges may be perfectly valid, but the problem is that people do not like to take it from her. For, the TMC itself did practically nothing in organising floods relief and, moreover, mass resentment against the central government’s refusal to sanction adequate compensatory grants in even stronger. So she is rather on the defensive on this question. Her other major allegation – that of combined police-CPI(M) terror – has also lost some of its cutting edge. For, of late, the CPI(M) state leadership has been trying, with partial success, to diffuse the situation in Midnapore and other districts of South Bengal. This move, taken only after the TMC challenge was violently crushed at the cost of much bloodshed and a tremendous amount of disrepute for the party in governance, was deemed necessary as a pre-poll damage control measure. BB stressed this shift quite effectively when, during his much-publicized tour of Midnapore, he strictly kept Sushanta Ghosh, the party’s “hero of Midnapore,” who leads the terror campaign, at bay and was accompanied instead by Suryakanta Mishra, who is known for his moderate approach. In such a situation it has become difficult for Mamata Bannerjee to continue with the demand for imposition of President’s rule in West Bengal.

All things considered, in recent months – one might take the September floods as the watershed – the CPI(M) has somewhat improved its position vis--vis the TMC in terms of political offensive. It can also take comfort in the fact that Saifuddin Choudhury’s new outfit has failed to make a major dent in its support base. But these are all current calculations; they cannot negate the long-term socio-political fundamentals, which are heavily ranged against the LFG.

When the Basu government was put in place in ’77, it was widely welcomed as a return to sanity and democracy after the blood-soaked decade that preceded it, particularly the black days of Congress hooliganism during 1971-77. But beneath the civility and normalcy, layers of nagging problems were accumulating: rampant corruption, blatant favouritism, declining standards in education, near break-down in public health-care, industrial down-turn, deteriorating law and order situation, coupled with the growing attrocities of a police-cadre raj and so on – in a word, all-pervasive stagnation and decay. In time, the negative factors grew up to overshadow the one-time achievements like restoration of democracy (regular elections to panchayats, for example) and limited agrarian reforms, accompanied by some improvement in productivity. The basic masses, in particular, got nothing compared to the tall promises made to them, while the upwardly mobile sections of middle classes, though 'greased', are craving for more. There is thus a groundswell of popular aspiration for change, and this can hardly be satisfied with a cosmetic change which actually represents a continuation of the “Basu era” sans the administrative and political acumen of Jyoti Basu.

Will April 2001 then announce a real end to the 24-year regime? That will indeed be a real possibility if the elusive Mahajot (grand alliance of TMC, BJP and Congress) takes shape or if the TMC leaves the NDA to team up with the Congress. If not, it will be very difficult for the anaemic Congress – or the uneasy team of a disunited and declining BJP and a TMC that is visibly stagnating in the post-flood period – to get the better of a well-organised LF.

As we file this preliminary report of sorts, uncertainty is still the name of the game in West Bengal as it passes on the mantle from JB to BB, with an ever-grouchy MB looking on.

—Arindam Sen