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A different Chief Minister

Mr Bhattacharjee is one of those rare politicians who don?t change when the cameras start to roll. His open manner didn?t alter one little bit, writes Karan Thapar.

india Updated: Apr 09, 2006 01:06 IST

It was his smile that I noticed first. It stretches from ear to ear and with it his eyes seem to light up. Odd though it may seem, it’s simultaneously shy and mischievous. Like a naughty boy’s, it’s also very winning. You simply can’t resist it.

I was sitting in a second floor corridor of the CPM’s Alimuddin Street head office in Calcutta sipping tea with the Chief Minister of West Bengal, waiting for the crew to finish their arrangements, before our interview could start. Normally these are tense awkward moments. Your guest wants to know what you are going to ask. That, of course, is the one subject you are determined to avoid. Consequently any conversation that happens is forced if not actually false.

Last fortnight was very different. Perhaps because Mr Bhattacharjee was distracted by the wafting sound of the midday azaan, we found ourselves talking about religious music. “I’m an atheist,” he said, “but after listening to Rabindranath Tagore’s Geetanjali I know that if Tagore was God I would be his first worshipper!”

“Yes, indeed. There’s something about religious music that can touch the heart,” I thoughtlessly and needlessly added, quite forgetting he had qualified his comments by reference to his atheism. But Mr Bhattacharjee deftly took advantage of my slip.

“Which is why atheists are most sensitive to it!” And then, with that famous smile creasing his face, he laughed heartily but soundlessly.

For a moment I wished I was there to interview the Chief Minister about books, films and music. His love for the arts is palpable. But I had come to Calcutta to talk about more mundane matters. My aim was to ask if he would accept that the Communists had made terrible mistakes in the past, that they needed to radically change their thinking and attitude and that the unions, who have often exercised veto powers, should be firmly put in their place. On these issues I felt sure the Chief Minister’s Buddha-like smile would disappear, his warm open manner become defensive and his engaging answers turn into half truths.

I was very wrong. Mr Bhattacharjee is one of those rare politicians who don’t change when the cameras start to roll. His open manner didn’t alter one little bit. When I asked him about the mistakes of the past he said they were very serious. India’s Communists had not only created the wrong impression in Bengal but through out the country and, in fact, outside in the wider world. Things had been so bad the word gherao was their gift to the Oxford Dictionary. His eyes lit up with a glint of mischief and his face broke into a warm smile as he made this point but there was no denying the fact he wasn’t proud of the achievement.

So what are the lessons the Communists have to learn from the sixties and seventies? I was astonished by the long list the Chief Minister reeled off. They have to change their attitude to the economy, to governance, to democracy and to political parties. At this point he paused but he wasn’t finished. He was only marshalling his thoughts. They also have to change their attitude to industry, education, the services. His message for the unions, he added, was if they don’t change their companies will fail. And then, as if that wasn’t enough, he went on to talk of privatisation. He actually used the word. He was no longer going to bear the burden of loss making public sector units, he said. 56 had been restructured and after the elections he is going to tackle the most difficult of the lot — the state electricity board and the transport corporations.

“What if the unions don’t let you?” I asked. I knew that had to be the catch. “That won’t happen,” he smiled. But this time I felt he might be evading. “And if they do?”
“Then I will still go ahead. I have my duty as Chief Minister. That must come first.”

Not much later the interview ended. As we walked out the Chief Minister smiled and asked: “Do you believe me?” I had to say I did. I knew that I should have been skeptical but this is one Chief Minister you can’t help but trust.

“Come back in a year’s time and see if I was wrong.” Once again that enormous smile returned to his face. This time his eyes were positively sparkling. “See if you can catch me out!”