Historian Sumit Sarkar is not known to mince his words. His Modern India is a magisterial left-wing sweep of the Indian independence movement in which the struggles of ‘non-elite’ groups have gripped students and lay readers alike. Sarkar may have his ideological vantage point, but his gaze is always honest. When Sarkar said recently that the Nandigram violence is similar to the violence in Gujarat, he drew attention not only to the parallels between the bloodthirsty CPI(M) cadres and the murderous VHP, but to another interesting new parallel in Indian politics: the striking similarities of the ideological opposites, Narendra Modi and Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee.
The chief ministers of West Bengal and Gujarat are in many ways similar political creatures. They both face the enemy within and without, both have their undeniable biases and both are accused of having blood on their hands. Both Bhattacharjee and Modi write poetry, both pride themselves on their regional identities, both are the bete noires of secular intellectuals and both are in danger of losing touch with the aam admi and becoming too identified with big businesses. Modi’s terrifying religious bigotry is perhaps the only feature not comparable to Bhattacharjee, but then the CPM is hardly as democratically tolerant of dissent as it pretends to be. The Left’s hatred of the ‘class enemy’ is almost as vicious as the saffron party’s paranoid hatred of the Muslim.
Bhattacharjee once described himself as a Marxist who is practising capitalism, someone whose own self-critical and charming personality has won him many admirers. Seeking his second term as CM, the bold new thrust of the “Buddha-led rethink” on industrialisation and reaching out to urban and the rural rich brought the Left front a gigantic three-fourths majority in the 2006 assembly elections. The Leftist CM is not afraid to be seen on the same stage as industrialists like Ratan Tata and Mukesh Ambani, even as his party colleagues in Delhi lead rallies against SEZs in Mumbai. While the Left Front in Delhi accuses the UPA of selling out to imperialist America over the nuclear deal, Bhattacharjee remained conspicuously silent. Instead, a small statement from him appeared buried in the inside pages of newspapers, that nuclear energy could well be an alternative source of energy for a growing economy.
The Singur Tata Motors plant is now by all accounts a peaceful and developing project, in stark contrast to the mess at Nandigram. At Singur, an exemplary compensation package has been handed over to the farmers by the Left Front government. For each acre of single-crop land, the government has paid a compensation of Rs 9 lakh, for each acre of multi-crop land, the government has paid Rs 12 lakh. Many residents of Singur are undergoing training at technical institutes.
Buddhababu, working full pelt in west Bengal, a pariah perhaps for the stern politburo in Delhi continues to be a full-time cm. He lives in a modest apartment and his wife travels by public transport to work as a librarian. Buddhababu smiles a lot, always wears a starched white dhuti and never apologises for the doings of his cadres. He’s broken from traditional ideology, has become bigger than his party and is at loggerheads with the central leadership. Yet, he is enough a creature of his cadre, never able to criticise their actions.
Now, lets compare all these characteristics with Narendrabhai. Anxious to shed the image of ‘hero of hatred’ and ‘Chief Monster’, Modi has embarked on heavy-duty development in Gujarat. One of the greatest successes of the Modi government is the remarkable ‘Jotigram scheme’ or the rural electrification programme. As Modi declared recently in a speech: “In west Bengal there is Nandigram, in Gujarat, there is Jotigram.” ‘Jotigram’ is a parallel electricity-distribution network consisting of more than two million new poles, bringing almost 24 hours of electricity to over 18,000 villages. The programme has unleashed a spate of rural entrepreneurship in many parts of Saurashtra. Diamond workers, who journeyed to faraway Surat to live in hovels and earn a pittance, have now opened diamond polishing units in their homes. Modi, besieged by rebels and unloved by his party leadership, sits garissoned in Block Number-I of the Sachivalaya in Gandhinagar, thinking up newer schemes for development. Buddhababu isolated in Writer’s Building makes a determined effort to keep business alive in the state.
In a parivar that prides itself on being a faceless collective, Modi has become a one-man show, his personality towers over the Gujarat BJP just as Buddhababu’s over the West Bengal CPI(M). Modi wears khadi, smiles a lot and systematically ignores his family. He had his brother’s licence for a fair-price shop cancelled, refuses to help any family member get a job, so much so that his youngest brother gave a complaining interview saying how Narendrabhai is not the older brother he should be. Modi is also a pariah in his own party. He’s been ousted from the central parliamentary board, not allowed to fill Pramod Mahajan’s shoes and not considered part of the national leadership. If Buddhadeb faces opposition from the Forward Bloc, the RSP and the CPI, Modi is now at the receiving end of the wrath of both the VHP and the RSS. Yet, Modi too like Buddhababu is unable to ever openly question or criticise his bloodthirsty cadres who regularly ratchet up violence against the class or religious enemy for the sake of The Party.
The single most important difference between Buddhababu and Narendrabhai is the extent of their prejudices. Modi’s government is at war with the Muslim and an anti-modern systematic policy of exclusion has reduced the urbane, unassuming and hospitable Gujarati Muslims to petrified outsiders in their own land. Buddhababu’s government is also at war, but the Left Front’s war against those who oppose the new economic policy does not contain the vicious relentless social implications that Moditva does. Yet as far as ideology is concerned, they’ve both made similar statements. Just as Buddhadeb always says he’ll remain a Marxist at heart, Modi too professes that he will always be a Sangh parivar politician at heart.
The greatest similarity between Buddhadeb and Narendra Modi is this. They have both set in motion forces that will endanger their own political survival. Buddhababu may be the Deng Xiaoping of the CPM. But given the rising public discontent against his government, the intellectuals protest and censure from the governor, there may come a time when Brand Buddha will become a liability for the CPM. And although the TINA factor is as strong in Gujarat as in West Bengal, Modi knows that hindutva and anti-Muslim rhetoric cannot work if the economy is to be globalised and investors are to be reassured about law and order. Already at his felicitation by industry in Ahmedabad recently, many top corporates kept away. If he wins in these elections, the coming term might just see the BJP growing impatient with ‘Development Modi’ rather than shouldering his responsibilities as ‘Hindutva Modi’. So, Buddhababu and Narendrabhai: both trapped between ideology and governance, both unpopular in their parties, both, in their own way, agents of real change in their states.
Sagarika Ghose is senior editor, CNN-IBN