UNINTENDED JUGALBANDI : No, Calcutta police did not join the bandh. Rather, a group of strike supporters discharged their responsibilities by thrusting red flags through the windows of a police van at Esplanade after they were picked up and ferried to Lalbazar. Picture by Pradip Sanyal
Calcutta, Feb. 20: Chief minister Mamata Banerjee today declared with pride that “the only state in the country where work culture has been restored 100 per cent is West Bengal and it is now leading the country”.
An element of artistic licence should not be grudged on a day a bandh fell flat on its feet in Bengal. “People are on the road. Shopkeepers are overcoming the fear psychosis,” Mamata added.
If the chief minister’s eloquence brought out one side of the story, what the CPM would not say told a larger tale.
The CPM virtually absented itself from the Left-backed bandh, largely because of former chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s battle within his party, especially against his comrades in Citu.
The net result was a rare phenomenon of the chief protagonists in the government and in the Opposition speaking in one voice — though in different decibels — on an issue that has been at the centre of Bengal’s politics — and the unmaking of the state.
The former chief minister may have many battles to fight with Mamata but both appear to have arrayed themselves against bandhs. “It’s good to see that Buddhababu is singing Didi’s tune and opposing bandhs within his party,’’ Trinamul leader and food minister Jyotipriya Mullick said.
Bhattacharjee, though, is still a man of the party and could not dissuade Citu from calling the bandh. But he did enough to distance himself and many others in the CPM from it and spoke early to oppose the two-day strike.
But for his intervention, Citu would have gone about the bandh in its own way and tried to use force to impose the shutdown.
Asked about the stand taken by Bhattacharjee within the party, a CPM state secretariat member today said: “Buddhada was against a two-day strike as that causes inconvenience to the people. That’s why he insisted that February 21 be observed as Bhasha Divas in Bengal and made Citu fall in line with him. In the party, he had also said that Alimuddin Street should not be seen as backing Citu effort.”
“That’s why you didn’t see our cadres on the streets today. We cannot ignore his stand,’’ the CPM leader added.
Many governments before Mamata’s had opposed bandhs. But Citu would have taken such opposition as a red rag and put all its resources to meet the challenge.
For Bhattacharjee, too, this bandh was a different challenge. It was one thing for him to oppose bandhs as the chief minister — which he had done several times. But this time, he had to take a stand even on a bandh called by the trade union of his party and others. In other words, he had to oppose a bandh as a principal leader of the main Opposition party in Bengal.
“Buddhada’s opinion was that the CPM, being in the Opposition, should not be into irresponsible politics. People don’t like bandhs at the drop of a hat. The time has come to make our party more presentable and responsive to people’s needs and aspirations,” said a CPM leader.
The other important element for Bhattacharjee’s battle was the fact that the two-day strike call had the sanction of Citu’s central leadership as well as that of CPM general secretary Prakash Karat.
“As former chief minister and our party’s principal campaigner, he had to take a stand for Bengal. Karat is the national boss of our party. But Buddhada knows what would suit our party’s interest in Bengal,’’ a source said.
On the face of it, Citu would not budge from its position as the union had its own compulsions. But nor could Citu afford to join the battle against Bhattacharjee openly. So, it kept up the pretence but had to concede defeat in the battle within. This showed up in Citu’s low-key presence on the streets today.
The Bengal Citu tried to rationalise its failure to enforce the bandh. Citu claimed that any strong-arm tactics or violence by its cadres would have robbed the trade union and the CPM of the perceived gains they are hoping to reap because of the people’s “growing disenchantment’’ with Mamata’s policies and actions.
A Citu leader also cited a change in the popular mood. Former state Citu secretary Kali Ghosh said: “We had taken to the streets on earlier occasions to make our strikes successful. But this time, we realised that the people should be given the freedom to decide how they would respond to our strike call. Actually, many people nowadays think that old militant trade unionism should no longer be pursued.”
State Citu president Shyamal Chakraborty, licking the wounds of the flop show, claimed that the strike was a “tremendous success’’ but did not elaborate why the union shied away from the streets.
But many in the CPM feel Bhattacharjee’s battle is at best half won. There are still enough of the old guard, both in Citu and in the CPM, who are yet to be won over.