The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Intentions are the better part of valour. But the divergence between intentions and actions often offers a good indication of a leader’s political skills and courage. Thus the wily among the politicians keep their intentions close to their chests. The chief minister of West Bengal has, however, made his intentions about the restrictions on rallies abundantly clear. The proposals that he has formulated and which he is going to present to the Left Front on Wednesday do not, in any substantive way, differ from the order that has been passed by Mr Amitava Lala last month. There are no apparent grounds for doubting Mr Bhattacharjee’s intentions. What will remain an enigma, however, is his prolonged silence on Mr Lala’s verdict and his government’s move to bring a stay on the judgment. Even for the few days that the order was in force, Mr Bhattacharjee’s government took no steps to enforce it. Mr Bhattacharjee’s attitude to Mr Lala’s order has an air of profound ambiguity about it. His own draft reflects aspects of Mr Lala’s recommendations, yet there is no recognition that Mr Lala was thinking in the right direction and in ways that could only benefit the overall plans and image of Mr Bhattacharjee’s government. The draft that Mr Bhattacharjee has made public will help to refurbish that image and gain the support of everybody save those who have only rallied but done little else for West Bengal.

Mr Bhattacharjee’s draft will also help clarify matters on one very significant issue. It has been nobody’s — not Mr Lala’s and not of those who supported his order — contention that rallies should be banned altogether. It was the left’s gloss on the order that it was an attack on the fundamental right to assemble and protest. Like Mr Bhattacharjee, the judge also proposed certain restrictions. On this, the chief minister and the judge differ only in the details. The guiding principle of Mr Bhattacharjee’s draft is that rallies and processions should not disrupt life in the city and should not transgress the right of people to move from one place to another. Mr Bhattacharjee very wisely has also suggested that the smaller rallies be deflected away from the city centre. The chief minister, if he is allowed to implement his intentions, aims to make Calcutta a more civilized city where the flow of daily life and dissent will both have their recognized spaces.

The critical question now is Mr Bhattacharjee’s skills in steering through his proposal. He will be opposed within and without the Left Front. His own party comrades may not be too happy with the restrictions that have been suggested. Political parties in West Bengal have a vested interest in rallies since these are the most convenient mode of protest that is available to them. Mr Bhattacharjee will have to persuade all critics and sceptics that he has higher stakes in mind. Restrictions on rallies are no longer an option that West Bengal can toy with. They are an imperative if West Bengal is to experience a resurrection.

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