| From talking films to stopping traffic. Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee began Monday by sharing the stage at the 4th West Bengal Sexual Health Conference with Nandita Das and praising the “very talented actress” for her role in Amaar Bhuvan, which he had “liked very much”. Then, Bhattacharjee switched stage and sentiment for some BJP-bashing at an SFI rally that crippled the city centre. Picture by Aranya Sen
Less than 20 months after the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government delivered a sermon, through Lalbazar, on keeping the streets free for the flow of traffic so as not to inconvenience commuters, the chief minister took a U-turn on Monday afternoon and led from the front in paralysing the city centre.
Members of the Students’ Federation of India (SFI), the CPM’s student arm, swamped Rani Rashmoni Avenue, arriving in trucks, minibuses and on foot, choking Esplanade and all approach roads. The star speaker at the traffic-stop meet to protest the “anti-people policies of the Vajpayee-led government at the Centre” was Bhattacharjee.
Last year, Bhattacharjee’s government had issued strict instructions to its police force not to allow any obstruction on roads or railway tracks to foil a SUCI-sponsored bandh on January 10. The then deputy commissioner of police (headquarters) Banibrata Basu had said that police had been given a free hand to lathicharge demonstrators who would deliberately hold up traffic on city streets.
On Monday, with the chief minister’s own men laying siege on the city centre and throwing traffic completely out of gear, there was no sign of any police action from the chief minister’s men in uniform to clear the streets for commuters. The explanation from the force was as lame as its action, or the lack of it. Kuldiep Singh, deputy commissioner (headquarters), said on Monday that the police can do little to check a “sea of people”.
As a result of the weekday roadshow, CR Avenue, SN Banerjee Road, Lenin Sarani, Esplanade East, JL Nehru Road, Red Road and several other adjoining streets, lanes and bylanes were choked for over three hours from noon, when SFI activists, including schoolchildren in uniform, started descending on the venue in droves.
If the rally at Esplanade was not bad enough, the repair of the Cossipore bridge added to the space jam on the streets, with north Calcutta traffic thrown out of gear by the closure of a vital passageway. Several stretches of north Calcutta suffered the spillover effect.
But it was the mega SFI protest meet — for which support and numbers were being drummed up for two months at various levels — that crippled large parts of Calcutta. With the city business hub at a standstill well into the afternoon, the image of a fast-track government took a real beating.
“The picture that Monday presented to any potential investor is the one he fears the most — politics slowing down business, with the chief minister showing the way,” said an official of an industry association.
The critique came from far and near. When contacted in Honolulu, mayor Subrata Mukherjee said: “The communists have this tendency of flouting rules and norms laid down by themselves. So, I am not surprised by the way the SFI rally was staged.”
Samir Putatunda, general secretary of the Party for Democratic Socialism, also former district CPM secretary of South 24-Parganas, added: “The SFI rally caused traffic snarls throughout the day, inconveniencing commuters and office-goers. Political parties must organise meetings, processions and rallies, but at the same time, we must take into account the ordeal the people have to suffer. It is better if we organise our rallies and meetings on holidays.”
Kshiti Goswami, former PWD minister and senior RSP leader, too, was harsh on the traffic hold-up: “Ordinary people suffer a lot due to the rallies and processions we organise. It would be wise to plan it on holidays.”