The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Lid on top, differences in CPM simmer
- Buddha and Bengal’s unhappiness with Delhi finds reflection in Basu’s comment

Calcutta, Aug. 2: It is still not out in the open the way the differences between the BJP and the RSS have been in recent weeks. But murmurs of discord between Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and a section of the CPM politburo are beginning to be heard.

Anxious to show results for his reform programme, the Bengal chief minister wants to break free from old party ways and do things fast. He came back from last week’s politburo meeting in Delhi unhappy with the hardening positions of Prakash Karat and his fellow travellers on different issues.

It was, however, left to Jyoti Basu to articulate first the Bengal leaders’ frustration. Even before the politburo meeting was over, he gave away the first hint of the differences when he said the Indo-US agreement on defence and other co-operation was “all right”.

This was no ordinary remark, given the fact that the politburo had earlier described the agreement as “unbalanced and inequitable” and argued that it would harm India’s “strategic interests and independent foreign policy”. It was unusual that Basu would so differ from the politburo on this issue, since anti-US rhetoric is one routine that has not changed in the CPM.

He sought to clarify his remark today. Although he was opposed to certain “conditions” imposed by the US on India, he still thought that the joint statement issued by President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was “all right in general”.

For Bhattacharjee, however, it was not the politburo’s position on the Indo-US agreement that was an immediate concern. He is believed to have been more upset with the hardline positions the politburo has taken over some issues directly relating to governance. According to party sources, he put on record at the politburo meeting his different perception on the Pension Regulatory Authority Bill.

Karat and many of his politburo colleagues see the bill as an attack on an important item of social security. As a chief minister, Bhattacharjee knows what an enormous task it is for a government to keep its commitments on pension payments. The payments cost the Bengal government nearly 10 per cent of its revenue every year. He shares finance minister P. Chidambaram’s anxiety to reduce the government’s pension burden.

Although it did not figure at last week’s meeting, Bhattacharjee’s differences with the politburo on the question of foreign investment in retail trade are also known. The party’s opposition to foreign investment in retail has queered the pitch for the chief minister, who had earlier sought to get such investment in Bengal by a German firm.

“Why can’t we have them here if the Chinese can have Wal-Mart and use it to get a trade surplus with the US'” asked a party leader.

Bhattacharjee’s open support for globalisation and international agencies is also at odds with the party line, which has set three “conditions” under which CPM-led state governments can take loans and grants from these agencies. The political-organisational report adopted at the last party congress says that these governments can take these loans or grants only if these do not “adversely affect the party’s struggle against imperialist globalisation”, if these do not entail “any structural adjustment conditionalities” and only if the governments can explain to the people the justification for such aid.

In private, Bengal leaders say no government can work under such conditions and yet hope to get much international assistance.

Publicly, though, the party presents a unified face and dismisses all talks of differences. But the fact is that not only Bhattacharjee but also other Bengal leaders of the party are increasingly speaking up and testifying these differences. The differences are still mentioned in private conversations, rather than in public. But such private references to the differences are also becoming more frequent.

Not that the Bengal leaders had not been shackled by the comrades in Delhi before. It had long been an open secret how the anti-American, anti-globalisation ideology of Karat and his men in the politburo had thwarted Jyoti Basu’s proposal for an amusement park planned by the Warner Brothers in Calcutta in the early 1990s.

At the root of this centre-state tension in the CPM is the fact that while the party in Bengal has to rule, the leaders in Delhi have to constantly think of an agit-prop strategy. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has to do business ' and therefore cooperate ' with the government in Delhi. For the comrades in Delhi, confrontation comes first in the strategy for growth.

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