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Left varsity war on southern Santa

New Delhi, March 13: Manmohan Singh now knows why he should not ignore his Left friends: what they can’t get, they will try to snatch.

Exasperated with the provincial politics played by some Tamil Nadu ministers and enraged by an attempt to undermine a premier Calcutta institute, Left MPs from Bengal today put up a show that is a first-ever by them in Parliament.

As shipping minister T.R. Baalu stood up to introduce a bill to set up a maritime university in Chennai, enraged Bengal MPs charged up to him, snatched the sheaf of papers in his hand and would have even landed blows had Parliament’s marshals not come between them.

Within minutes, Baalu’s DMK colleagues raced up and threw a human wall around him. As the shoving and jostling got uglier and noisier, Speaker Somnath Chatterjee adjourned the House.

The Left has no problem with a marine university coming up in Baalu’s home state Tamil Nadu.

But it feels that such a step should not be at the cost of the Marine Engineering and Research Institute in Taratala, the country’s oldest such education centre that has helped many a youth find plum jobs. The CPM and its allies fear that if the Calcutta institute is not declared a university, it will be reduced to a mere appendage of the Chennai centre.

This is one of the rare instances when the Left, known so far for flexing its muscles to enforce bandhs and shut down factories, has actually rolled up its sleeves to keep an institute in Calcutta on track.

A team of CPM MPs, led by Hannan Mollah, had called on the Prime Minister last month, demanding that the university be set up on the Calcutta campus.

“Today’s protest is an outburst against the Centre’s calculated move to shift the proposed university to Chennai. We have proper infrastructure for such a university on the Taratala campus. Moreover, ours is a premier institute,” Mollah said in Delhi.

The fracas died down a couple of adjournments and ugly scenes later, with CPM politburo member Sitaram Yechury spending over an hour with the squabbling MPs in the Speaker’s room trying to broker peace.

At the end of the day, the bill was referred to a parliamentary committee headed by Yechury. This means the bill has been sent to deep freeze for now, but the Left has won for itself some room for manoeuvre as Yechury is at the helm.

Yechury later clarified that the Left was not against Chennai getting the university but wanted the Taratala institute to be upgraded to varsity status too.

The near-fisticuffs between partners of the ruling UPA coalition left the Opposition chuckling and thumping desks with glee. “I hope this civil war within the UPA has come to an end,” L.K. Advani, leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha said.

The CPM’s first Speaker, Chatterjee, who insists that MPs should be role models for the country, called it a “very sad day”.

What happened in the House is the result of a brand of benevolence pursued by many parties. Baalu is from the DMK, which has a history of playing Santa Claus to Tamil Nadu when it is part of a central coalition.

Likewise, A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury used to be called the railway minister of Bengal. Mamata Banerjee is one of the few who did not display parochial tendencies when she was railway minister.

The Bengal MPs in the middle of the ugly drama were the CPM’s Anil Basu, Sujan Chakraborty, Samik Lahiri and Tarit Baran Topdar.

“What happened in the House was unfortunate and regrettable. We regret it. We reacted emotionally. There was no question of hurting anybody’s sentiment,” an MP said later.

Although the cause for the Left protest may strike a chord in Calcutta, the means it chose are sure to draw condemnation. More so in light of the way it cashed in on the atrocity unleashed by Mamata’s Trinamul Congress on the Bengal Assembly over Singur.

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