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Like Caesar & God, bandh & CPM

Calcutta, Feb. 21: Sonia Gandhi or Manmohan Singh has little to do with the Intuc, the Congressís trade union wing. Arun Jaitley didnít even think of campaigning for the general strike that the BJPís labour arm, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, had called along with other central trade unions. But what Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee did about the two-day general strike this week was unprecedented for both the CPM and Bengal.

He did not oppose the strike but forced his comradesí hands to reduce it to a dayís shutdown. When he spoke at a party rally in Calcutta on the eve of the strike, he had nothing to say either to support or to oppose it. He had, however, said enough earlier to show his opposition to the bandh in Bengal on the first day of the two-day strike.

Whether he spoke or stayed silent, Bhattacharjee sent out a message that was something of a milestone in the CPMís history. His message was: the strike call was from the Citu and he would like the CPM to stay away from it.

This was revolutionary stuff from the main leader of a party which has a history of treating the Citu and the CPM as one and the same thing. Communist parties have traditionally seen trade union activities as only secondary to their larger political agenda and strategy.

In communist theory, agitations by trade unions aimed at wage increases or other benefits are mere ďeconomismĒ and politically subversive. Unlike trade unions affiliated to other parties, leftist trade unions must ultimately survive and work for the benefit of the party rather than of the workers.

Unlike in other parties, therefore, CPM leaders have interchangeable roles as leaders of the partyís mass fronts, of which the trade union one is of crucial importance. Jyoti Basu began his political career as a trade union leader. But even while he served as Bengalís chief minister for more than two decades, he remained one of the vice-presidents of the Citu. Some of the most influential members of the CPM politburo have always been from the Citu.

It was thus inconceivable that a senior CPM leader would even think of a life without the Citu. Bhattacharje did exactly that during this strike. He almost showed the Citu its place and asked it to mind its own business without getting the party entangled in it.

As chief minister, he did not keep his dislike of the Citu a secret. Given the CPMís organisational structure, he could not hope to free himself completely from Cituís leaders and its actions. But he rarely lost his chances to cut them to size. He seems to honestly believe that the Citu is more a liability for the party than an asset.

What makes his position during this strike rather unique is that he has dared to renew the battle even when the party is in the Opposition. And, he has done it at a time when, after a self-imposed exile from the public stage following the 2011 election defeat, he is back at the centre of the CPMís offensive against the Mamata Banerjee government.

The message obviously is that Bhattacharjee remains the CPMís public face in Bengal. If he wants the party to leave the Citu to its devices and to keep the party relatively free from its power, the message cannot be ignored within the Marxist parivar.

How far and how much he will succeed in breaking the CPM-Citu nexus remain uncertain. No CPM leader before him has tried this. Given the Stalinist nature of the party, his own comrades may try and sabotage his initiative in the name of party discipline. Or, even Bhattacharjee himself may grow cold feet and recant.

Even he may not know what the future holds. But what he did with the strike could be a turning point for the partyís future.