A leader who follows, rather than leading, his party ends up losing direction. The Left Front’s rally at the Brigade Parade Ground on Sunday proves yet again that Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee remains the most popular face of not only his party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) but also of the Left in West Bengal. Yet, despite the huge crowd that the party managed to collect, the ultimate impression that the rally left was one of a hiatus between the party and Mr Bhattacharjee. At the Brigade rally, Mr Bhattacharjee had a chance to deepen and expand a campaign that he had kicked off only days before. It was one against his own party and its outdated ways. His admission that his partymen had committed a “dangerous mistake” during the killings at Netai in West Midnapore in 2011 was refreshing stuff. What he suggested was that fairness and justice should prevail, and that the country and society must be above the party. Mr Bhattacharjee’s criticism of the party was reminiscent of Jyoti Basu calling the CPI(M)’s decision to not allow him to become prime minister in 1996 a “historic blunder”. But the two leaders reacted differently when the party censured them for their statements. Basu simply abided by the majority view in the party but did not recant. Faced with the party’s censure, Mr Bhattacharjee retracted from his position. The size of the Brigade rally notwithstanding, he now stands diminished in the eyes of the people in Bengal.
Mr Bhattacharjee has to decide how far he will go in trying to reform a party that remains largely unreformed. It is still stuck with ideas like anti-imperialism, anti-liberalism and anti-privatization, which are clearly out of step with both economic logic and political modernity. During his tenure as chief minister, he had sometimes shown courage in battling the party and forcing it to bend to his will. His defiance of the party-line on foreign direct investment in retail and in greenfield airport projects was a bold attempt to break away from a Stalinist party’s view of economic progress. However, he also exposed his weaknesses when the party struck back. What the Brigade rally does to boost the morale of the CPI(M) cadre, or whether it improves the party’s prospects in Bengal in the Lok Sabha polls, is a small question. The big question is whether the leader will do enough to change the party.