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Blowin' in the wind

"It is people who make history," says a banner behind the dais where chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee made his first campaign speech for the 2011 assembly election on Tuesday. Varghese K George reports. The Bengal conundrum

kolkata Updated: Apr 01, 2011 18:03 IST
Varghese K George

"It is people who make history," says a banner behind the dais where chief minister Budhadeb Bhattacharjee made his first campaign speech for the 2011 assembly election on Tuesday.

Jyoti Basu, Marxist chief minister of West Bengal for 23 years until he made way for Bhattacharjee in 2000, had made this statement.http://www.hindustantimes.com/images/HTPopups/110311/11_03_pg13a.jpg

After two chief ministers for about 34 years, the CPI(M)-led Left Front (LF) in West Bengal is seeking the eighth consecutive term in power. And for the first time the LF is being seriously challenged, by a formation led by Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee. She is promising change - partivartan.

In 2008, when the LF faced a drubbing in the local body elections, a front leader had described it as a "momentary mistake" by the people. After the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, when the LF was behind the TMC-Congress combine in at least 190 of the state's 294 assembly constituencies, at least some Marxists have realised the mistake is with them and not the people.

It was turning dark in Akra Barotala in the southern periphery of the city and Bhattacharjee had turned up one hour after the scheduled time. The crowd was not in a hurry. They had shut the day's work - most of them tailors working from home for garment manufacturers - and listened to speeches that may have heard a zillion times in their life. But this season, politics is about change.

"What change do you want? We have brought change to Bengal already. Land has been redistributed. Poor people now own land. Panchayats are strong and people are empowered," CPI(M) district committee member Dilip Sen said. Sen is in his sixties. Other two speakers - Subhas Naskar (59), RSP leader and state irrigation minister, and CPI(M) minister Abdur Razzak Molla (67) - continued on the same track. "Our culture is beautiful, it's tolerant, respectful of each other's religious beliefs and practices. What is it that you want changed?"

The target of their ire was Mamata Banerjee's call for change, but the End of History argument was hard to miss. With land redistribution, regular panchayat elections and empowerment of the rural peasantry - all of which happened at least three decades ago - there is nothing more to change, according to them.

But 62.4% of Bengalis have been born after the first LF government was elected and 38% of the state's population is between 15 and 35 years of age. Sen and Molla may not notice them, but they may seek change. Something Bhattacharjee realises and worries about.

At 6 pm sharp, the chief minister walked into a thunderous applause and waved away the security men who were blocking the view. More applause.

"The real government is in Delhi," he said. "They are not controlling prices of essential commodities while in just one scam, one minister has made 1.73 lakh crore," Bhattacharya said. "They have a rail minister who is announcing new projects every day. But where is the money? The railway has been pauperised."

After a good dose of rhetoric, Buddha turned into his pet theme - of industrialising the state, his top agenda for the last decade met with stiff resistance within and outside the LF. "We have to change our thinking. The only way we can move ahead is by industrialising," he said. There was no applause.

He then went on to analyse the setbacks that the Left had faced in recent years. "Trinamool is winning not because of its strength, but our weakness. We have to change. Party workers must conduct themselves with humility. Workers who do not behave like disciplined comrades will have no place in the party," he said.

This time there was applause. Those for whom history has already ended sat with an indifferent stare.

But then, it's people who create history, said Jyoti Basu.