In Blink, American author Malcolm Gladwell’s popular book on snap judgement — “the power of thinking without thinking”— there is the curious case of Warren Harding. In the ‘Warren Harding error’, the Republicans got carried away by his irresistibly distinguished look — his biographer compared him to Julius Caesar — and pushed him all the way to the White House in 1920.
As President, he was an unmitigated disaster and when he abruptly died midway through his term, the nation was not particularly sincere in its mourning.
In Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, who replaced Jyoti Basu as chief minister of West Bengal in 2000, his party, the CPI(M), found a man who, they thought, would not only pass off as ‘cultured’, but also reflect the generational shift in the concept of ‘bhadralok’, the Bengali word denoting a class with multiple shades.
In other words, a home grown ‘bhadralok’ was wanted, as Basu was at times too subtle, if not foreign, for the comprehension of the rather thuggish men who filled the CPI(M)’s ranks. They got a Harding instead.
Of course that does not mean that Bhattacharjee is the sole author of his party’s debacle, or rather he’s some kind of a dhoti-clad Gorbachev.
Maybe the CPI(M) would have trooped out of the exit door a decade ago if the Election Commission (EC) were as non-partisan then as it now is.
Or if LK Advani, the then home minister, in his typical convoluted thinking that makes him think of Muhammad Ali Jinnah as secular and CPI(M) a gentlemen’s club, hadn’t been so reluctant to release enough central paramilitary forces to help the EC prevent the CPI(M) brigands from hijacking voting machines.
The party would then have been over long ago, and correctly so. Instead, it stayed on and put Bhattacharjee in the saddle, and the man, by his monumental incompetence, made the party a hate object in its exit.
Under the CPI(M), there was never a distinction between the party and the government. But in Bhattacharjee’s tenure, the state party virtually disintegrated in a few years, with power slipping into the hands of a clutch of local goons.
While he as chief minister held on to the additional charge of the home department, the police superintendents were taking orders not from him but the local party toughs. The police would not entertain a complaint without a nod from the local party.
Lawlessness bred a fresh eruption of Maoist violence. The CPI(M) hired killers in its own backyards to keep the opposition on a short leash. Bhattacharjee was too much of a wimp to stop all that.
Besides, he lacked the practical sense of Basu, his predecessor, who, never ventured to acquire land for industrialisation by coercing the farmer. In fact, the CPI(M) earned its popularity initially by distributing surplus land among the landless. In other words, it created a propertied class.
But Bhattacharjee dug his own (and his party’s) grave by ordering forcible acquisition of land at Singur near Kolkata for the Tatas’ Nano factory. It made his antagonist Mamata Banerjee smell blood. Her successful campaign to block the Nano project was the beginning of the CPIM)’s end.
Bhattacharjee, 67, had grown in a Calcutta of too many problems and too much ambition, which had made leftism a sort of popular religion of the city. But he became his party’s face in a different Calcutta — Kolkata rather — where ideology didn’t matter anymore and the place was reconciled to its mediocre status in post-Independence India.
He thought his chair gave him the power to wish history away.
So, dreaming up a Bengal that would be part Guangdong and part Silicon Valley, he chirpily called Ratan Tata by his first name and signed away land to him. In a blink!
If Stalin was his boss, instead of Jyoti Basu, he would have long since been sent to the Gulag for being a bourgeois windbag or, well, a ‘thought-criminal’.
(Sumit Mitra is a Kolkata-based political commentator. The views expressed by the author are personal.)