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The blindfolded visionary of Bengal

india Updated: Nov 15, 2009 00:36 IST
Tanmay Chatterjee

He was a man revered for his public image — almost as spotless as his white dhoti-kurta — for his first six years as successor to Jyoti Basu as chief minister of West Bengal. Then Nandigram happened in 2007. Since then, he has been pilloried as a “blindfolded” apostle of industry. By the time 2009 comes to an end, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s public image will have turned a darker shade of grey.

It’s not just Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee, CPI(Maoist) leader Kishenji, or the torchbearers for Kamtapur, Gorkhaland and greater Jharkhand (states their supporters want to carve out of West Bengal) who want him out. Going by the results of the last two years’ panchayat, civic and general elections, it seems even millions of voters, a significant section of the media, many policemen and bureaucrats, too, want to see the last of him.

But what happened to the Buddhadeb the Bengali buddhijibi (intellectual) had fallen in love with? One of the first occasions he popped into the headlines was in 1993, when he resigned from Jyoti Basu’s Cabinet because of difference of opinion. The former information and culture minister used the time to pen a critique of a work by modernist poet Jibanananda Das.

Veteran journalist Amitabha Chaudhuri, who has known Buddhadeb since his childhood days, remembers his astonishing memory. “Even at the age of 5, he could recite Tagore’s poems one after another.” Chaudhuri was a regular visitor to the Bhattacharjee residence at 11D Ramdhan Mitra Lane in north Kolkata. “Whenever Bacchu (Buddhadeb’s pet name) came in, we would make him sit on the almirah. He was allowed to come down only after he sang a few songs,” said Chaudhuri. It’s this artistic persona that the Bengali middle-class fell for.

The love fest continued even after he became chief minister.

If cricket is Buddhadeb’s religion, Sourav Ganguly is its presiding deity. Neil Mukherjee, a television journalist, remembers how Buddhadeb kept himself informed of cricket scores between interviews. “It was a Sunday in 2000, and the electronic media had been invited to the [CPI(M)] party headquarters for consecutive interviews. As we took time to organise, Buddhababu kept sending his party workers to the TV room to feed him the latest scores.”
The Bengali voter kept loving him till the Assembly elections of 1996.

“It was only after the March 14 [2007] police firing at Nandigram that a section of the media started maligning his image and section of people got confused,” says Rabin Deb, former MLA and CPI(M) state committee member, in defense of his senior colleague.

It’s true Buddhadeb’s credentials are impeccable. He first showed his capability as an organiser while serving as the state secretary of the newly-formed Democratic Youth Organisation of India, a mass wing of the CPI(M), in the late 1960s. He has been a state committee member of the party since 1972, a central committee member of 1985 and a politburo member from 2000. Besides, he has also been serving as a minister for more than 26 years.

Kshiti Goswami, RSP leader and the state’s public works minister, says, “He took charge at a time when there were new questions and challenges. He tried to find out a new way, tried to experiment. In a sense, he can be called an adventurist... he’s always trying to do something new. Sometimes things go well, sometimes not.”

But after that fateful winter day in 2007, the people of Bengal were not left in much doubt which way things had gone. The police, sent in to open a blockade enforced by the Trinamool Congress in Nandigram, opened fire and killed 14 people. Buddhadeb, as a chief minister who had long been in charge of the home ministry too, was directly responsible.

A large number of intellectuals, who had pampered for his self-confessed weakness for poetry, art and parallel cinema, turned against him.

Then came Singur. Then the death of Rizwanur Rahman that implicated three IPS officers. Then came the botched relief efforts following the havoc of the Aila cyclone.

Even allies within the Left Front, who had already started criticising the state’s land acquisition policy, raised the pitch of protest.

At a rally last week, the 65-year-old chief minister told his followers: “We cannot deny there is a wind of change blowing over Bengal.” Coming from a man who’s known to speak his mind, it sounded like the understatement of the decade.