Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s recent pronouncements, in public speeches and television interviews, are quite remarkable. His criticism of the policies — or the lack of any — of his successor, Mamata Banerjee, is only to be expected. But he has also spoken out on the need to get private capital to Bengal in order to build industries, big and small, which alone can propel the state into a higher stage of development and provide large-scale employment to an educated workforce that will otherwise be compelled to leave its shores.
On the face of it, there is nothing new in Bhattacharjee’s point of view. As chief minister of Bengal, he not only said these things but tried to implement them too. His initiatives met with spectacular failure. Singur and Nandigram entered the national lexicon as bywords for thwarted industrialization, of the power of organized peasantry defeating the might of capital.
Many in the Communist Party of India (Marxist), too, blamed these “twin disasters” for the final unravelling of the Left Front in Bengal. After the Left Front faced a jolt in the Lok Sabha elections of 2009, and then the debacle in the assembly elections two years later, there were two contending views on the reasons behind the defeat. One section — colloquially referred to as the “central line” — blamed the Left Front’s accumulating deficiencies over three decades in office. The other (or “Bengal line”) felt the decision to withdraw support to the United Progressive Alliance I government over the nuclear deal which facilitated the unity of Opposition forces (Congress and Trinamul Congress) was primarily responsible for the rout. But neither defended Bhattacharjee’s industrialization drive; both tacitly attacked it.
That in spite of this post-mortem, that in spite of all the flak he received for “deviating” from hallowed party principles, that in spite of being called a “revisionist” (or worse, a “neo-liberal”) by armchair Marxists who dominate the Left discourse, Bhattacharjee is still sticking to his guns is what makes his recent utterances striking.
His pro-industrialization efforts as chief minister could have been seen, as indeed they were, to be stemming from the exigencies of running a cash- starved government. In Opposition, he was expected to return to the comfortable rhetoric his party has long mastered — attacking the government at the Centre and the state for their “anti-people” policies, ignoring the challenges of an utterly changed world and retreating to the soothing certainties he had imbibed as a young communist.
That he has done none of that shows Bhattacharjee’s convictions run far deeper than his comrades reckoned. It is now clear that the former chief minister, from his own experience of running the government, has come to the conclusion that a robust and sweeping industrialization is crucial to develop Bengal; that the benefits accruing from land reform have run their course and agriculture can no longer sustain the economy; that even the “welfare state” the Left Front promised cannot be delivered without an economic renaissance; that such a transformation — in the current national and international climate — needs infusion of private (domestic and foreign) capital; and in order to attract that capital certain dearly-held dogmas have to be shed, bold ideas adopted.
Loss of power has not made him change his mind. If anything, he seems now to be convinced that his vision of development is absolutely necessary not just for Bengal’s future but also for the revival of the CPI(M) in the state. The Left has to offer something new, something concrete to the people of Bengal if it wants to return to power (or even improve its position) and cannot just depend on anti-incumbency against Mamata Banerjee to become a relevant force again. No matter how disillusioned people may have become less than two years after the promise of ‘paribartan’, no one wants a return to status quo ante — and Bhattacharjee has grasped that truth in full measure.
Yet for all his recent iterations, Bhattacharjee remains a lonely figure, a solitary voice, without the accompanying chorus he so desperately needs. Offering his prescriptions in a piecemeal fashion, Bhattacharjee never got the full backing of his party and its mass organizations, notably the Krishak Sabha and the Centre of Indian Trade Unions. If he had, Singur and Nandigram may not have ended in a fiasco.
Today, the party is more tolerant of his views, not least because he remains its chief campaigner and best hope. But he still doesn’t have its ideological support. And the fault lies entirely with him for the real tragedy of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee is that he has failed to theorize his beliefs, failed to formulate a political-ideological line, failed to fight for an alternative vision within the party.
In a sense, he is a victim of his times. There is no real debate, no full-blooded battle of ideas in the Left anymore — self-styled “hardliners” and “moderates”, “revisionists” and “radicals” co-exist happily within the CPI(M) today, content with the stultifying routine of meetings and more meetings, resolutions upon wordy resolutions, each repeating the same formulations that may have been inspiring at one time but now sound like so much bloated rhetoric, observing the jaded ritual of dharnas and bandhs bereft of passion or meaning, raising stale slogans that are more soporific than stirring.
It wasn’t always like this. The Indian communist movement has a rich history of debate and dissent, leading to more than one historic split. And communist leaders in the past fought fiercely for their line, risking expulsion or oblivion but not settling for some soulless compromise. P.C. Joshi in 1948, Charu Mazumdar in 1967, P. Sundarayya in 1978 come to mind — men with completely contrasting ideologies and personalities but each of whom stood up for his beliefs rather than swim with the prevailing tide.
In communist parties the world over, change always comes from the top, never from below. It comes when a leading figure musters the courage and conviction to challenge received wisdom, and fights to bring the party on board behind his line. Bhattacharjee is uniquely placed to mount that challenge today. With the removal of V.S. Achuthanandan from the CPI(M) politburo, Bhattacharjee remains the only mass leader at the highest level of the party. Manik Sarkar may have a longer innings as chief minister, but Tripura is not Bengal. Having come up through the ranks, Bhattacharjee combines the experience of mass politics and running an administration as few others in the leadership.
He is also a man of impeccable integrity and personal austerity — again unmatched by most of his comrades in the higher echelons of the party. And though he has never moved out of Bengal, Bhattacharjee is, arguably, the best known communist leader in the country today.
But these attributes amount to nothing unless they go into the formulation of a robust political line. It is not enough for Bhattacharjee to call for Bengal’s industrialization and for the end of the culture of strikes. To make a real difference to Bengal and to the CPI(M), he must work out a much more detailed understanding of the current situation and imperatives, and convince large numbers of his party comrades that a more dynamic alternative is possible, is necessary — that the old slogans simply don’t work, that communists cannot just sit idly and watch the world go by, that private capital-induced development is not an end in itself, that the struggle for a secular, humane, egalitarian and just society must continue apace, that a “vibrant Bengal” built by a re-invigorated Left can be the perfect antithesis to another man’s polarized vision of a vibrant state at the other end of India.
Whether Bhattacharjee faces victory or defeat, it is a battle worth waging — both for himself and the party. They have nothing to lose but their stasis.