HE LIVES out of a modest government flat of no more than a thousand square feet, guarded by a small posse of constables. His is probably the smallest VVIP convoy, comprising just an escort jeep and two Ambassador cars. Given a choice, he would rather have the hooters turned off. And, he speaks his mind.
In his spotless dhoti-kurta, West Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee cuts a prototype Marxist figure. But when it comes to governance and policy decisions, he is more than willing to trade stodgy dogmas for liberal realpolitik. Despite the Nandigram killings, he is willing to stake his political career to bring industry to Singur and the rest of the state. For many, Bhattacharjee is an enigma wrapped in mystery. You may like his theory or reject it, but he is deeply convinced about what he feels is right for Bengal. To achieve his goals, he doesn't mind apologising for the police firing that killed 12 villagers in Nandigram or criticise people for “blindly opposing the US”.
Thus, when Bhattacharjee endorsed Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s vision of a nuclear renaissance, the Bengal chief minister's words may have come as a surprise for his colleagues at AK Gopalan Bhawan in Delhi. But then, knowing the way Bhattacharjee has lived his political life, he has proved once again that he has his feet firmly planted on the ground. After all, Bengal is poised for an industrial revolution and energy needs top priority.
From leading the Bengal Provincial Students’ Federation in the mid-1960s to heading an industry-savvy government, the protégé of the legendary Pramod Dasgupta has indeed travelled a long way.
No wonder, Bhattacharjee has been able to push industrialisation in Bengal despite strong opposition from the Trinamool Congress and some reservation among the CPI-M’s allies in the Left Front. The process was initiated by Jyoti Basu but efforts yielded little result till Buddhadeb took over in 2000.
“It's the happiest day of my life,” Bhattacharjee had said after signing an MoU with Indonesia’s Salim group on August 25, 2005. Orthodox Marxists singed, as Bhattacharjee didn’t sound half as excited when he became a state committee member way back in 1972 or when he was inducted into the Politburo in December 2000. After a few days, came the most controversial statement. “Reform and perform or perish,” Bhattacharjee said precociously.
“He was misinterpreted by the media. He only said perform or perish,” claimed a Politburo member later to control the damage. Has Bhattacharjee changed his ways after becoming chief minister? Even his bitter critics won’t agree.
He was handpicked to head the information and public relations department in the first Left Front government in 1977. Always known as an “intellectual” — an image no other Left leader in Bengal has carried so firmly through words and actions — Bhattacharjee didn’t want his portfolio restricted to public relations. He had a debate with Cabinet colleagues and convinced them to change the name to “information and cultural affairs department” — which he still heads.
In August 1993, the West Bengal CPI-M witnessed one of the worst crises in its history. Bhattacharjee had differences with a bureaucrat close to chief minister Jyoti Basu. On August 27, the two leaders had a heated exchange at the party’s state Secretariat meeting and Bhattacharjee quit the Cabinet. When they met again at Subodh Mullick Square on August 31 to observe Martyr’s Day, Basu didn’t even talk to him. Bhattacharjee virtually went into exile. While everyone thought he would apologise to Basu, he opted to turn playwright. His work, Dussamoy (Bad Times) reflected the decadence in politics.
It’s all over for him now, political observers had said. They were wrong. Bhattacharjee was taken back into the Cabinet in June 1994 and given additional charge of the urban development department.
Basu and Bhattacharjee never fought again and the bureaucrat in question now heads a government body, post-retirement. The formation of the United Front in May 1996 was a turning point in Left politics and, then too, Bhattacharjee silently left his mark.
There was a crisis in the CPI-M over the question of participation in the government. Former general secretary Harkishen Singh Surjeet and leaders from Telugu Desam, Samajwadi Party, Janata Dal and CPI pitched in to see Jyoti Basu as the first Communist prime minister. Surprisingly, leaders from Bengal like Biman Bose, Nirupam Sen, Anil Biswas, Benoy Konar and Md. Amin opposed the proposal and sided with Prakash Karat and hardliners from Kerala. Bhattacharjee was the only person from Bengal who stood by Basu at that hour.
Basu later described the CPI-M’s decision to stay out of the UF government as a “historic blunder”. Even to this day, the hardliners have not been able to give any befitting reply to his comment. But as they cross swords with the UPA over the Indo-US nuclear agreement, at least some probably realise that Bhattacharjee had the foresight that they lacked 10 years ago.
Always known as a straight-talking man, Bhattacharjee has rarely allowed his political values or the party's agenda influence administrative decisions. In 2002, he was criticised by colleagues and Muslim clerics for stating in public that some madrasas in Bengal had become a haven for terrorist outfits. But he didn’t retract. As home minister (his second portfolio since 1996), he made the same point in Budget speeches in subsequent years.
Bhattacharjee’s tryst with the BJP-led NDA government possibly displayed the most charismatic aspect of his administrative capabilities. He had no qualms about dealing with home minister L.K. Advani, whom his party still condemns. He would frequently meet Advani to discuss border problems and threats posed by terrorists using West Bengal as a corridor. If rumours are to be believed, the two even developed some kind of a friendship.
Bhattacharjee may be Bengal’s man of the moment. But at the end of the day, he is a Communist with an independent mind. And that’s how the cookie crumbles.