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A BABE IN THE WOODS
- Communist leaders at the various crossroads of history

The chief minister of West Bengal, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, has joined a list of communist leaders the world over, who, faced with difficult choices at various crossroads of history in their respective countries, opted to do what they believed was right. On December 13, 1981, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, first secretary of the Polish United Workers’ Party and prime minister, imposed martial law on Poland to prevent an invasion of his country by the Soviet Union. Jaruzelski knew exactly what was at stake for the Polish people if he did not take that difficult decision. As Poland’s defence minister in 1968, he had a ringside view of the events that led to the Soviet invasion of neighbouring Czechoslovakia, an invasion which he knew was a great “political and moral mistake” but was helpless to prevent. As communism was giving way to multi-party democracy all over Eastern Europe, Jaruzelski, by then Poland’s president, publicly apologized to Vaclav Havel, his Czechoslovak counterpart, when the latter visited Warsaw in January, 1990.

Close to midnight on the night of June 3, 1989, soldiers and tanks from the 27th and 28th units of China’s People’s Liberation Army took on students and other agitators who had occupied Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and were demanding all manner of reforms. The Chinese Communist Party leadership was deeply divided on how to deal with the biggest challenge to the State since the 1949 revolution, but China’s president, Yang Shangkun, an ardent supporter of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms, took the initiative to crack down on the Tiananmen Square protests. If Yang, with Deng’s support, had not taken that difficult decision nearly 18 years ago, China may have gone the way of the Soviet Union. It would not have become the economic dynamo it is today and certainly not emerged as the next superpower and competitor to the United States of America.

June, 1991. The coup against Mikhail Gorbachev had not yet taken place, but the writing on the wall was that the USSR was falling apart. Among those who read and understood that writing on the wall was Nguyen Co Thach, Vietnam’s foreign minister for 11 years and principal private secretary to the legendary General Vo Nguyen Giap in the Forties. Some Indians will remember him as North Vietnam’s consul-general in New Delhi in the late Fifties (there was no Vietnamese ambassador to India then), who liked to tell people that he learned English in India with this famous remark: “Can’t you smell the curry in my English'” Those were the days when the only foreign language that most North Vietnamese or Vietcong leaders spoke was French. Thach was the main architect of Hanoi’s policy against close relations with China, a policy, which had the support of the then secretary-general of the Vietnam Workers’ Party, Nguyen Van Linh. With the prospect of an end to the massive Soviet assistance to Vietnam and the likelihood that a changing Eastern Europe would no longer support Hanoi politically or otherwise, Linh and Thach were faced with a difficult choice: turn to China, which had invaded their country in 1979, or face the possibility that their communist state may not survive. Beijing responded to overtures from Hanoi for a rapprochement because the Chinese leadership too feared a domino effect of any collapse of the Vietnamese government. But after embarking on a course which was against their instinct or liking — but necessary in the interest of the Vietnamese people — Linh and Thach, along with seven of the 12 members of the Vietnam Workers’ Party politburo, its majority, resigned from their posts to give the new China policy a chance under a new leadership. In the annals of the communist world, there are many such instances similar to the difficult choice that West Bengal’s chief minister is now faced with, when qualities of leadership demand that he does the right thing even if his decisions portend a great risk to his popularity, even to his political future.

West Bengal has been in altering degrees of ferment for at least five months over unions in the information technology sector, Singur or Nandigram. But that has so far not diminished international interest in West Bengal as “one of the fastest growing states in India and…as a preferred investment destination,” as the very latest economic delegation to visit Calcutta put it last week. That delegation was from the Netherlands, and it was in Calcutta, undeterred by signals that the situation in Nandigram and Singur was going from bad to worse. The Netherlands may be a small country with a small population, but the significance of Dutch interest in West Bengal must be seen in the context that it has been fifth in foreign direct investment inflows into India between August, 1991, when the economic reforms began, and January this year. The Dutch delegation’s description of today’s West Bengal is a summation of the hopes created by Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and is typical of the response abroad to his new vision for the state.

Not a fortnight passes without at least one important delegation of some kind from the US arriving in Calcutta. To point that out at this time may only serve to inflame the feelings of intellectuals in Calcutta, who have expressed their outrage in various ways against the Nandigram incidents. It may also invite a high degree of disapproval in constituencies from which Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has traditionally drawn his strength. But facts must be faced, howsoever unpalatable they may be for the politically correct and armchair liberals.

Indeed, even if only some of the projects which are under discussion between the West Bengal government and American corporations, universities and the US government actually materialize, they will have the effect of transforming the image of West Bengal as an investor-unfriendly state, whose leaders were long seen in North America as carrying the ideological baggage of political dinosaurs.

In Washington, there is a belated realization that the biggest mistake the Americans made since the upturn in Indo-US relations was to deny the chief minister, Narendra Modi, a visa without realizing its implications for the US at a time when Gujarat is racing ahead in development and Modi is consolidating his place in the state as its leader without any challenge. What was done in Gujarat in terms of long-term damage for American interests cannot be easily undone. Neither the government in the US nor its business leaders want to repeat that mistake and give up on West Bengal. It has not been lost on the US intelligence apparatus that a powerful arm of the resistance in Nandigram is the Jamaat-e-Ulema-e-Hind. The American intelligence community believes that the next big Islamic extremist threat to south Asia is from Bangladesh and that it has the potential to put India’s eastern region under siege. Unfortunately, for decades, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) has been complicit in facilitating the conditions which have created the potential for such a siege and Bhattacharjee’s efforts to break with the past in this regard may be a case of too little too late.

A further complicating factor for the West Bengal chief minister is the situation which his party now finds itself in: with 62 Left MPs who are decisive for the survival of the Manmohan Singh government, the CPI(M) suddenly finds itself in a position where it can influence the choice of state governors, ambassadors and judges. For this party, institutions like the Raj Bhavan are no longer black or white. Last week’s events in Nandigram have brought forth a realization that in the political snake-pits of New Delhi, created by the vaulting ambition of individuals and rat races for high office, Bhattacharjee is like a babe in the woods. Until they became a part of the power play at the Centre, state leaders of the CPI(M) did not have to tread softly around wheeling and dealing, including, as in the fallout of Nandigram, some clever jockeying for occupancy of the Rashtrapati Bhavan when president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam retires in July.

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