Many of his party comrades, as well as colleagues in the Left coalition that holds power in the state, entertained fond hopes that Jyoti Basu would heed their appeals and consent to stay on as chief minister of West Bengal, at least until the state assembly elections, due middle of next year. But the patriarch of Bengal politics was determined to call it a day. But before doing that he had a strong agenda to push. Sources close to Basu say the 86-year-old chief minister had waited for one last victory—not in elections, not against his known political adversaries, but against a section of hardliners within his own party, who had effectively blocked the path to his becoming India’s prime minister in 1996. At the special conference of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), held in the southern city of Trivandrum in October, the hardliners were routed. An overwhelming majority of the delegates supported Basu’s thesis that “the decision to not participate in the central government in 1996 was a historic blunder”. Thus the way, has been cleared for future participation by the CPI(M) at the central government in New Delhi.
Once the party endorsed the position he has often publicly asserted, Basu did not have much reason to stay on. His announcement of retirement was sudden, and even caught the party General Secretary Harkishen Singh Surjeet off-guard. Basu says he had good reasons to quit when he did. “My successor must have some time to project himself, because he is going to lead the party in the next elections. If I hang on, it is not fair because my health is not good enough to do justice to my job anymore,” he told this writer in an interview.
In itself, this was a unique move by a unique man. Communists do not retire, he used to say, but by stepping down from office, he has created a unique precedent. “Basu is a shrewd politician. He wants the party to face no succession problems,” says Ashok Mitra, his former finance minister who had fallen out with the old patriarch and resigned.
But another man who said he was fed up and resigned from Basu’s government, is now at the top. The new chief minister of West Bengal, Buddhadev Bhattacharya, had resigned in 1993 as information and culture minister following factional squabbles. He then went on to write a controversial play Dusomoy(Bad Times), which was staged with some fanfare in a few Calcutta theatres. But Basu brought him back to the ministry, gave him additional responsibility as police minister, a charge Bhattacharya clearly did not enjoy, and has now got the playwright-politician to succeed him.
Bhattacharya comes from a family of leftist poets. He is a reasonable playwright, and has translated much foreign literature into Bengali. His roots are strongly Bengali; he loves Indian classical music, literature and good films. Bhattacharya seems more keen to play Bengal’s thought police rather than an effective police minister. He stopped singer Samantha Fox from performing in Calcutta, and is now engaged in a slanging match with his transport minister and party mobiliser, Subhas Chakrabarty, over the state government’s support to a latenight HrithikRoshan show. Bhattacharya sees Bollywood and Hollywood as “decadent cultures”.
Chakrabarty got the Hrithik Roshan group to perform to a hundred thousand people in Calcutta’s Salt Lake Stadium to raise money for the Chief Minister’s Flood Relief Fund, just when the Calcutta International Film Festival (which Bhattacharya takes personal interest in organising) was in full swing. “Why should our government patronise a show for Hrithik Roshan who has got patrons like Coca-Cola,” thundered Buddhadev in an obvious broadside against Chakrabarty. The latter responded: “I don’t want a lesson in culture from anybody. who has said only Bengali programmes or something like the film festival is good culture. The Hrithik Roshan show stirred thousands, not a few so-called intellectuals.”.
Basu had to intervene to restrain his squabbling disciples, but the fracas gives some idea of the kind of person the new chief minister is. Immediately after taking over, Bhattacharya told this writer in an interview: “I am very proud of Bengal’s contribution to India. Our people have excelled in all spheres of life. Maybe the 19th century renaissance will not return but we need closer cooperation with our brothers in Bangladesh. Our interaction is important for the rejuvenation of Bengali culture.”
However, despite being a proud Bengali and a self-confessed “committed Marxist”, the new chief minister is far from parochial. When the Shiv Sena threatened to stop Pakistan’s ghazal singer Ghulam Ali from performing in Bombay, Bhattacharya made extensive arrangements for a soiree in Calcutta’s Science City auditorium. Ali sang to a full house. Bhattacharya tries to get leading filmmakers and intellectuals to come to the Calcutta Film Festival and the Calcutta Book Fair. He has ensured that the Book Fair is inaugurated by leading intellectuals, like the French philosopher Jaccques Derida, the Bangladesh poet Shamshur Rehman or the British physicist Christopher Hawkins.
The new chief minister’s lifestyle is fairly simple and austere. His mother says the family would be more than happy to see Buddhadev as a school teacher and a playwright, which was how he started off. As a party full-timer on a wage of 200 rupees, Bhattacharya has seen his family struggle. His wife and daughter insist the “family will not change now”. The new chief minister has refused to leave his middle class Palm Avenue three-room flat in Calcutta, though the police want him to do so for security reasons. His only luxury perhaps are Benson and Hedges cigarettes, of which he smokes at least two packets a day.
Detractors say Bhattacharya is a rigid Marxist, at times very sectarian, who is always daring the BJPRSS— be it in defiantly hosting a Ghulam Ali show or holding a cricket match with Pakistan in Calcutta. He also threatens to unleash his party cadres on the ‘saffrons’. Basu had avoided throwing frontal challenges at India’s ruling Hindu-Right brigade, although he has described them as being “uncultured”, and “barbarians”. Bhattacharya, the day he took over dared Delhi’s MP-led government to unseat the Left in Bengal, and rounded off by quoting from his uncle Sukanta’s poem: “The enemy will soon discover, the soil of Bengali is no soft soil for the miscreant, the people will rise and teach them a lesson.” Wait and see.