Buddha is not smiling

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Like the much-hyped India Shining campaign, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee had become a prisoner of his own brand. Tusha Mittal chronicles the rise and fall of Bengal’s most divisive comrade

Illustration: Samia Singh

ONCE, COMRADE Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee was someone else. It was the summer of 2006. Bhattacharjee had led the CPM to a sweep, winning 235 of the 294 Assembly seats in West Bengal. One of the first calls came from Ratan Tata. He congratulated the chief minister; they discussed investing in Bengal. With the win, Buddha was poised to become Bengal’s Deng Xiaoping — the comrade who led China towards a market economy.

“Communists can’t speak about old dogmas anymore,” the chief minister said after the victory. “The world is changing. We must reform or perish.”

He had set in motion a rollercoaster of economic reforms during his first stint as CM in 2001: SEZs. IT parks. Visits to Vietnam and Singapore seeking FDI. More flyovers. More shopping malls. A ban on rickshaw-pullers

“The sight of a human pulling other humans on his shoulders for a pittance does not enhance Kolkata’s image in the eyes of influential visitors,” Bhattacharjee said in a 2005 interview to the Financial Times. It was perception after all. As CPM leader Mohammad Salim put it, “The image of Bengal as a godforsaken place with militant trade unionism and starvation has held the state back.”

The irony of Bhattacharjee is that he became obsessed not with building Bengal, but with ornamenting its image. He became trapped in appearances. When the government hired an official brand manager — Wally Olin, who previously branded Poland, Spain, Rio de Janeiro and the 2012 London Olympics — it was not only about Bengal’s image, it was about his own. Soon the appraisals poured in: The right man in the wrong party. The Bengal tiger. The one who would marry Marxist theory with market reality. The architect of a Shining Bengal.

Wipro’s Azim Premji hailed him as the “country’s best CM”. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh outlined the need for more such “visionary and courageous political leaders who understand the challenges of modernisation”.

While the CPM decried this as a media campaign to create a rift “between the party and the individual”, it seemed the CM revelled in it all. As the media spun him into a largerthan- life icon, as it wove the heroic tale of ‘Brand Buddha’, of a single communist leader breaking all the old shackles, the 67-year-old CM began to believe in the brand himself.

Sources close to the CM say the editor of a major media house that launched Brand Buddha began to advise him on policy matters. “Buddha began to believe he could be a better chief minister than Jyoti Basu,” says a party insider.

It was during Basu’s tenure that the CPM first changed its industrial policy. At the 1994 party congress, the CPM adopted a document that welcomed foreign investment as “maybe appropriate or mutually advantageous”.

Since 2001, Bhattacharjee gave that policy an unprecedented boost. “I am against bandhs. Unfortunately, I belong to a political party that calls for bandhs. I have kept quiet. But, from now on, I’ll not keep quiet,” he said to a gathering of industrialists. “All this anti-SEZ talk is rubbish,” he said at a private adda with the Bengal’s cultural elite.

Between 2002 and 2006, the CPM grappled with internal conflict. “It arose when embracing modern technology required labourers to be sacked. Some in the party did not want to support anything that was seen as anti-labour,” sources said. “But the landslide win in 2006 muted it all.”

The win became a turning point, an affirmation of the CM himself. In Bhattacharjee’s second term, industrialisation became a single-point agenda and his raison d’etre; “a tool with which he could craft an identity distinct from the pack”.

The irony of Buddha is that he became obsessed not with building Bengal, but with ornamenting the image of it. He became trapped in appearances

This push was perhaps not about greed or corporate kickbacks. Living with his wife and daughter in a spartan two-room government flat in Kolkata’s Palm Avenue, Bhattacharjee’s loyalists describe him as a frugal man.

“The only day he carries money is when he needs a haircut,” say party loyalists. A barber from a makeshift salon outside the party office does the job. He is paid Rs 10, the only regular personal expenditure the CM incurs.

According to his nomination papers, Bhattacharjee owns no property, has no investments and his personal assets amount to Rs 5,000. Whether or not that’s entirely accurate, even his detractors give him a clean chit. The investment push is perhaps about image, about the power that comes from being the Deng Xiaoping of West Bengal.

When Bhattacharjee invited Indonesia’s Salim Group to invest at a chemical hub in Nandigram, it triggered discomfort within the party; the group was known for its associations with General Suharto, who was responsible for the massacre of communists. But the CM was unfazed. “Capital has no colour or ideology,” he argued.

Yet, even as the Shining Bengal narrative gathered steam, there was a sense of insecurity, an unease with his own choices. “Every time Buddhadeb was in the National Capital for Politburo meetings, two top Kolkata industrialists made it a point to be there,” says a source. After the day’s work, the CM would meet them at Bengal House; beer and Chinese food would be ordered from the Oberoi hotel. This became a pattern for a year, until an aide told the CM that his position in the party could be in jeopardy if such rendezvous continued. “Buddhadeb dropped them like hot potatoes,” says the source. “For years, he refused to recognise them even at public functions. The odd thing is that the bearer of the warning was a non-entity no CM should take seriously.”

The irony of Bhattacharjee is that he mirrors the confusions of the Left, the need to be relevant, to be Marxist in 21st century India because that too is a brand. He wants to be perceived as a solitary reaper, and yet he knows he needs the party. Perhaps that is why, in a state where party and governance are dangerously intertwined, the CM is unable to act independently even on administration issues.

For instance, in the Rizwanur Rahman murder case of 2007, he was in favour of taking action against a top cop who allegedly abetted the murder. “He was told that the courts would decide. Legal advisers insisted the matter was sub judice. But as CM, he could have taken administrative action,” sources say. “In retrospect, he wishes he had done that.”

Illustration: Mayanglambam Dinesh

ONCE, COMRADE Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee was someone else. Earlier this year, on a hot February afternoon, in a vast open maidan in the heart of Kolkata, 12 Left Front stalwarts sat on a stage. They were flanked by the Victoria Memorial, the Eden Gardens and the Tata Steel towers. But when the CM stood up to speak, he was dwarfed by something else. Behind him stretched a mammoth canvas, a portrait not of splendid high-rises and urban towns, but the masses that had first brought his party to power, the masses that Bhattacharjee has never really known.

That is why Bhattacharjee is in many ways a misfit, an accidental politician, the bourgeois comrade. The son of a book publisher, he was born in an erudite middle-class north Kolkata family. A student of Bangla literature at the prestigious Presidency College, he translated the works of Vladimir Mayakovsky, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Franz Kafka into Bangla. It was his access to high culture that brought him into politics, and it will perhaps be this elite culture — a resultant intellectual arrogance, an inability to reach his people — that will take him out. When acclaimed filmmaker Satyajit Ray died, comrades whispered: “Oh God, he’s the only person Buddho could talk to, and now even he’s dead.”

In the turbulent 1960s, Bhattacharjee approached Orko Probu Deb, a physics student who was helming radical underground shifts in student politics. “You will have to prove your guts,” Orko Deb told him. “Go set a tram on fire.” Dutifully, Buddha tried to ignite a flame in a second-class compartment. A Bihari policeman caught him and flung him out. The baby flame was put out with a khaini spat.

Realising that he wasn’t made for underground politics, Bhattacharjee went on to work as a teacher and write for Bangla magazines. But the romanticism of politics stayed.

He was holidaying in Puri with friends when the epiphany struck. “Sitting by the beach, looking at stars, he declared he will return to Kolkata and join politics,” says a close friend. “In the 1960s, you had to be somebody to be in politics.” Then too, it was all about brand management.

UNLIKE HIS predecessors, Bhattacharjee did not come to the party through the peasant and labour movements. Beginning his career as a culture minister in Basu’s first 1977 Cabinet, he has retained the culture portfolio since.

As CM, Bhattacharjee’s daily routine involves a morning visit to the party HQ in Alimuddin Street, Writers’ Building, a lunch break at home and evenings spent with the intelligentsia at Nandan, the cultural hub. His cultural associations with writer Sunil Gangopadhyay and actor Soumitra Chattopadhyay were a way of distinguishing himself from his comrades. This is how Bhattacharjee lived out his political journey in Kolkata. Even during the flashpoints of Nandigram, Singur and Netai, the CM has not once visited the flashpoints.

Some of this radically changed after CPM’s drubbing in the 2009 Lok Sabha election. In the past 20 months, the CM has been visiting the districts every weekend. “Now, he’s taking more interest in law, economy, industry,” say party sources. “Earlier, he would depend on a few officials. Now he sits with the advisers of various departments and checks everything. Many projects were not being implemented due to ministerial lethargy. Now there is earnestness. The CM is personally intervening.” Suddenly the priority list includes insurance for the unorganised sector, self-help groups, MGNREGAwages, and distribution of rice at Rs 2 per kg. It looks like a desperate attempt before the Assembly election.

It is a similar desperation that marked the CM’s address on that hot February afternoon. In a white dhoti and kurta, Bhattacharjee leaned into a mike and spoke in cadences. He did not utter the word ‘industrialisation’ even once. “People have not left us. They are just hurt. They wanted to teach us a lesson,” he said. “We must rectify our mistakes. Go with your heads bowed. Be humble. Ask for mercy. Go to every village, every town, every para(locality), every house.”

This was a changed man. A CM who had been forced to acknowledge the problems dogging the government. It was not something that came naturally to him.

In 2008, before the Singur agitation, Mamata Banerjee had sent him feelers for a dialogue through an intermediary On hearing the Opposition leader’s proposal, the CM said, “Tara ke?” (Who are they?) Another time, when asked to comment on the Opposition leader, he replied: “Amar ruchite baadhe.” (That is below my taste and dignity.)

The arrogance after the 2006 triumph manifested itself in many ways. In 2007, justifying the bloody recapture of Nandigram by armed CPM cadres, the CM said: “They were paid back in their own coin.” When then home secretary Prasad Roy said that the Nandigram police firing was not without the CM’s knowledge, he was transferred. Later, the CM admitted to a group of concerned artists: “I wanted to resign after Nandigram, but I have a job to do, and who else can do it?”

When acclaimed filmmaker Satyajit Ray died in 1992, comrades whispered: ‘Oh God, he’s the only person Buddho could talk to, and now even he’s dead’

In 2008, while picking a location for the Tata Nano plant, Singur — the only village with a TMC MLA on the 85 km Durgapur expressway — was chosen to “teach TMC a lesson”, say sources. Later, the CM admitted: “I did not know it was fourcrop land, I thought it was single crop.”

That is why for his supporters, Bhattacharjee will always be the man who wanted a better Bengal, the communist who could compromise with capitalism. For his detractors, he will remain the man who ordered the Nandigram firing, under who’s watch CPM cadres shot nine villagers dead in Netai and the architect of the Left’s demise in its own den.

ONCE, COMRADE Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee was someone else. In the volatile Bengal of the 1960s, he had all the right qualities to be a disciplined party soldier. These are the qualities that propelled him from a Kolkata district CPMworker to general secretary of the CPM youth wing to a Cabinet minister and eventually chief minister.

He came from a pro-Left middle-class family. His uncle Sukanto was a celebrated Leftist poet who wrote elegies to the poor. He had the right neighbour too: Alok Majumdar, a CPM leader who proved instrumental in helping him up the ladder. His training in Marxism came from acclaimed Presidency professor Surya Banerjee. Even as a young comrade, he was selective; he did not gossip with the party’s rank and file, he did not meet people unless required. Yet, he had few friends outside the party circle. He was a man of frugal habits who would not fall into the trappings of big money. He was overtly honest. He suited Bengal’s cultural ethos. Brute force, muscle power, gambling, he seemed above it all. He had no ‘bad’ connections. “They trusted him most because he had no life outside the party,” says a source close to Basu.

Others in the party were given the dirty work, while Bhattacharjee was groomed for Parliamentary politics, to be its clean Marxist face. He was handpicked by then CPM state secretary Pramod Dasgupta not because he made a great leader, but because he made a great partyman.

Post Emergency, he became a first-time MLA from Cossipore in 1977 when the anti-Congress wave brought the CPM to power. In 1982, he lost his re-election. “It was a constituency of Bihari unorganised labour. Buddha was unable to reach out to them,” says a party insider. “He related more with the party, than the people.” He was then transferred to Jadavpur in urban Kolkata. Populated mostly by Bangladeshi refugees who naturally gravitated towards the Left, it was one of the party’s safest seats. It has since been Bhattacharjee’s bastion. He won the previous poll with a margin of 50,000 votes.

In 1993, Bhattacharjee resigned from Basu’s Cabinet after an internal squabble. He called the CPM a “house of thieves”, and penned a play titled Durshomoy (Bad Times). He was cajoled into rejoining and taught that compromises will have to be made.

In picking Basu’s successor, the choice was between Bhattacharjee and Somnath Chatterjee. But Chatterjee had national ambitions, Bhattacharjee was a regional player; he preferred to stay within his comfort zone. In 2001, Bhattacharjee became CM not because he best suited the government, but because he best suited the party. In a state where politics has penetrated into every aspect of life — arts, water supply, MGNREGA — this means, as Amiya Chaudhari, a former Calcutta University professor puts it, “Buddhadeb became the CM of the CPM, but could not become the CM of Bengal.”

At his core, Bhattacharjee is perhaps not a political being. “He is happiest when he’s reading a good book, watching a good movie or listening to music,” says Bikas Ranjan Bhattacharya, a close friend and the CM’s election agent.

Though he represents a political ideology that seeks a world without classes, his own conduct seems to reinforce the class of the high-thinking cultural elite, a class that is impenetrable for any ordinary party worker. There is no visceral instinct, no innate need to engage with masses.

Perhaps, that is why he was surprised when his barber asked for a wage hike. One evening in 2008, the CM’s barber sheepishly approached a partyman. Prices were rising; could the CM please pay more than Rs 10 for a haircut? The partyman called Buddhadeb’s wife, a company manager. The next morning, Mira Bhattacharjee handed him two Rs 10 notes instead. “Why?” he asked perturbed. Mira gave him a reality check. That evening, handing the barber his wages, the CM expressed mild shock: “How prices have doubled!”

Given that this story comes straight from his loyalists, it is perhaps another opportune tweaking of Brand Buddha. It seems the comrade is always someone else.

Tusha Mittal is a Principal Correspondent with Tehelka.
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