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A break from the B-word

Calcutta, Aug. 8: Strikes in Bengal may finally be losing their DNA.

Today’s Citu strike created history of sorts by not turning into a bandh. It was a rare day when a Left-sponsored strike did not disrupt life in a big way. And, after months of embarrassment over the Singur-Nandigram land wars, the Cricket Association of Bengal row and recently over the issue of autonomy for Presidency College, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has something to cheer about.

If he could not prevent Citu from calling an all-India strike, he at least succeeded in stopping it from using it to impose a total shutdown in Bengal.

CPM leaders would argue that a Bangla bandh was not on the agenda of the strike, which was meant for the unorganised sector. But Bengal’s experiences with Citu’s strikes tell a different story. Whatever the issues, a Left-sponsored strike has always been a euphemism for a bandh and treated by both politicians and people as such.

Till last night, most people inquiring about the strike had the same question. Is it a bandh tomorrow, they asked, even after being told that it would be a strike in the unorganised sector. They had known Citu’s strikes to mean bandhs, irrespective of issues and sectors, unless they were in specific industries such as jute, tea or coal.

No matter in which sector the strike was organised, others would always pitch in their bits as a sympathetic gesture. The people from other sectors would be called, as Left rhetoric puts it, “to express solidarity” with the strikers. In short, everyone was invited to join the bandh party. Today’s strike needed only transport workers, both private and government, to join it in order to turn it into a bandh.

After today’s strike, Citu may increasingly choose sectoral strikes, rather than bandhs, as a dominant strategy. The signs of this change have been there in Bengal for some time, thanks mainly to the chief minister’s opposition to strikes. His new drive for industrialisation makes the politics of strikes both irrational and indefensible. His battles with his own party and Citu over strikes in the information technology sector are a signpost of this change.

Today, there was an even more interesting example of how Citu is falling in line with the chief minister. It is no coincidence that the example this time came from Singur, the most visible symbol of the change that Bhattacharjee wants to usher in.

It was work as usual at the Tata Motors project in Singur. Elsewhere in the state, construction workers, who are an important component of Citu in the unorganised sector, joined the strike. The reason: the project, already delayed by months of political agitation, could no longer afford to lose even a day.

Now, whose decision was that' Citu leaders would say it was their decision. That would be technically correct. But there can be absolutely no doubt that the man behind the decision was none other than the chief minister. The president of the Bengal unit of Citu, Shyamal Chakraborty, has only conveyed the message to his comrades at Singur.

All this is not to suggest that Bhattacharjee has his way about everything in Citu or the CPM. Clearly, he does not because, if he had a complete sway over Citu, he would have put a moratorium on strikes of any kind in Bengal.

It would be wrong, though, to see it as a personal dilemma for Bhattacharjee. The CPM has been struggling with the party’s conflicting roles in the government and in the Opposition. Bhattacharjee is the most visible — and reformist — face of the party in government. The new thing is that he has succeeded in forcing Citu to mend its ways to a great extent.

But Bengal’s love of strikes, like old habits, may die hard. Thus, today there were familiar scenes of Citu zealots forcing small traders to down their shutters or intimidating taxi drivers who wanted to take their vehicles out on the streets.

The big picture, though, was of the unfamiliar scene of an almost normal life in the streets and of the people going about their normal work during a strike.

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