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Outfit on the brink reaches out for strike straw

Did Thursday's shutdown of Bengal signal the return of Citu' Was it Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee's defeat to the enemy within'

Political and business circles as well as the common people would be debating such questions after what they witnessed that day. It is not so much the impact of the bandh in Bengal that stirred such questions. That a Left-sponsored bandh can paralyse life in Bengal is the worst kept secret of Indian politics. What was rather unexpected was the way Citu made it a show of strength, almost throwing the gauntlet down at Bhattacharjee.

Yet, the first impressions could be wrong. Citu may have harmed Bengal's ' and Bhattacharjee's ' interests more than it hurt the UPA government, against whose policies the all-India strike was called. But the militancy may well backfire on Citu.

Far from the victory that its leaders may like to see in the bandh, it was actually a desperate act by an organisation that has found itself increasingly marginalised even within the CPM. Not just its militancy, but Citu itself has become out of place in the new policies of both Bhattacharjee and his party.

The outfit, that once called the shots in industries, big and small, across Bengal, is today powerless to fix wages, let alone organise old-style labour movements. Citu has lost its shine and steam not only within the CPM's state secretariat or the state committee, but also with the workers who no longer see it as a protector of their interests.

In trying to use the strike to regain lost ground, Citu seems to have badly miscalculated its political and popular impact. The way its members overreached themselves to enforce the strike may actually push it further into a bind. And, they have given Bhattacharjee and his fellow-travellers in the party a handle to put them in their place.

That the chief minister was extremely upset with Citu's ways on bandh day was evident in the sulk and the silence into which he retreated. A louder disapproval came from his wife, Meera Bhattacharjee, who defied the bandh and went to work. It takes no great political acumen to see she carried the chief minister's message.

There were other signals, too. Nirupam Sen, the commerce and industries minister, and Bhattacharjee's lieutenant in the change-Bengal charge, called the bandh 'unwarranted'. Transport minister Subhas Chakraborty, not exactly a Bhattacharjee acolyte otherwise, also rubbished the politics of bandhs. Even the state CPM secretary, Anil Biswas, sounded apologetic when he said that the party had not called the bandh but only given it 'moral support'. All this adds up to one thing ' the chief minister was clearly angry, but other party leaders were also keen to distance themselves from Citu's bandh show.

It does not, however, mean that the party had nothing to do with the strike. The all-India strike was aimed at expanding the Left's influence elsewhere in the country. Bengal, the jewel in the Left's crown, could not be out of the show.

Ironically, Bengal, the Left's main base, had to suffer so that it could make some gains in other states.

But, thanks to the party being in power, Bengal has also taken the development route. A bandh is the worst thing that can still happen to a chief minister who is so anxious to woo investors. This has the party caught in its own contradictions.

One of the ways the party has been managing the contradictions is to constantly change itself and put down militancy, particularly on the labour front. What Citu has done, Bhattacharjee will argue, is a blatant violation of the policy adjustments accepted by the party. He will definitely ask the party to give him more freedom to rein in Citu. Given its political compulsions, the party may not openly declare war on Citu in Bengal, but it will move closer to the chief minister's side in the battle.

It is not that Citu, too, has not changed. Its muscle-flex- ing on Thursday looked so much out of tune with the times precisely because much of its militancy is seen as yesterday's story.

And, the softening of Citu, like other changes in the CPM, started happening many years ago. The change was reflected in the past in the way the hardline Citu leader, Niren Ghosh, was sidelined in favour of the moderate, Monoranjan Roy.

Bhattacharjee may turn its Thursday show on Citu's head and remind it that the days of hardliners are long over.

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