It’s a promise Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee vows to keep at any cost: “September 29 will not be repeated ' under no circumstances.”
He is referring to the Left-backed general strike on that day when Citu, the labour wing of his own party, forced a shutdown on the information technology sector at Salt Lake in defiance of his policy.
“Hooliganism by outsiders (read Citu) will not be permitted,” he warns. The warning, though, is not restricted to any particular industry or service sector.
Bhattacharjee made the promise during an hour-long interview with The Telegraph on the eve of completing five years as chief minister. His party will take a final view of IT and the role of trade unions at a three-day session of its central committee in December. But that does not deter him from making the promise.
The debate on the issue in the party’s politburo, he said, gave clear guidelines on three things. The party has come to accept that some areas in the IT sector such as call centres and others involving global business would be kept out of strikes.
It also agrees that outsiders will not be allowed to force strikes on the sector and that, though the IT employees’ trade union rights include the right to strike, only they can call a strike by giving the management a formal notice.
“I can tell you, except for some small firms with special problems, the employees in the big IT companies will not be interested in forming trade unions. It’s not a question of what we wish; it’s the reality.”
The other big promise is not exactly new, but he pledges to fulfil it on his road ahead. If, despite Citu, a new climate for industrial rejuvenation of Bengal has been his success story, education remains his big story of failure.
Bhattacharjee admits the failure, is candid about the main reason for it and now promises again to set things right. “It’s been a tough job. I admit that I haven’t been able to eliminate the party’s control of education. Alimuddin Street is still interfering (in academic matters).” He claims to have largely freed the school service commission from the problem. But in the college service commission and the universities, it still is a major problem.
The chief minister, however, is confident of making a start with the old question of giving autonomy to Presidency College. But that’s something he has been promising for the last three years. Two years back, he said his government had identified five colleges that would be made autonomous.
“Not five, we’ve decided to start with two ' Presidency and St Xavier’s. The (government) order is out. It’ll happen in the next few months '- elections or no elections. But you’ve no idea how much resistance I faced from the government college teachers’ association.”
The autonomy, he assures, would mean that the authorities of these colleges would be free to choose their academic courses and recruit the teachers.
But his government would not allow higher education to be abused as a money-making enterprise. Of the 38 private engineering colleges now in Bengal, some are “into all kinds of cheating”. “We’ll close down some of them,” he says.
He is hoping to make the party see reason in other areas also. He has different views on some of the issues on which the CPM opposes the Centre’s policies.
For instance, he does not agree with the party’s opposition to the Centre’s proposals on pension funds. “We can’t go on like this. The pension bill will be higher than the salary bill.”
He hints that the party has accepted a compromise formula, by which the Centre will mobilise other resources in order to create a pension fund instead of dipping into the workers’ funds. Despite the CPM’s opposition to it, he reiterates his willingness to open retail trade to foreign direct investment.
He is also ready for compromises on the UPA government’s proposed labour law reforms.
“We can’t accept some of the proposals, such as the blanket right to owners to retrench workers or close the units. But we are prepared to accept outsourcing for some government jobs such as sweepers, gardeners, etc. We have done some of it in Bengal also.”
The chief minister is, however, keen to correct two “myths”.
His attempts at wooing investments for new industries are not at the cost of agriculture or the Left Front’s land reforms. He wants to create the right conditions for more IT units and other industries.
“But we also have another top priority. We’ve identified the state’s poorest of the poor in 4,600 villages. It’s also one of my main challenges to lift these people out of this abject poverty.”
That sounds like his strategy for the Assembly elections next year, when the popular judgment on his successes and failures will be tested.