The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Atal asks, Buddha attacks

Calcutta, July 17: Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee gave a mostly political — and not an economic — reply to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s speech yesterday when he asked Bengal to think why it had slipped.

Bhattacharjee termed the Prime Minister’s address “wrongly advised and badly drafted”.

“There is no reason to believe that Bengal has slid into a morass. Rich in culture, intellect, creativity and political consciousness, Bengal and, mind you, not BJP-ruled Gujarat, will show the way,” he said.

In his address at the 150th anniversary of the Bengal Chamber of Commerce, Vajpayee had asked: “Why did businesses leave Bengal' Why did new investments skip Bengal'”

“These questions are best answered by the people of Bengal themselves and their representatives…. Outsiders can only surmise that the arrival of dogmatism saw the departure of development,” he added.

The answer came from Bengal’s highest political representative, the chief minister, who took Vajpayee’s observation as a slight to his party.

“We could not make out whether he (Vajpayee) was delivering an election speech. I consciously did not react yesterday as a matter of courtesy as the Prime Minister was in Calcutta,” he said.

Bhattacharjee, however, observed that he had nothing to say on Vajpayee asking the Bengal “government machinery, right down to the last clerk, to gear itself up with a new work culture”.

“We, too, want this.”

That was the only concession, though. “The person (Vajpayee) who is accusing us of dogma has one arm on the shoulder of the RSS and another on the VHP. He lives in a world of dogmatism and fundamentalism. We are still suffering from the pains we received from the Babri Masjid and Ayodhya.”

“He could have said Bengal was free from communal riots and that Bengal was one of the most secular states in the country,” he added.

Picking up the part of the speech where Vajpayee said the state could no longer complain of Delhi’s stepmotherly attitude, Bhattacharjee said discrimination was rampant.

“What about the railway bifurcation even after the Planning Commission ruled against it' We have a poor credit-deposit ratio and we did not get the Centre’s help during floods. While procuring foodgrain, the FCI buys more from Punjab and Andhra than Bengal. Is this not discrimination'”

He attacked the Prime Minister’s position on per capita income. He said it is true that for some years in the 1980s, Bengal lagged behind. “But in the last financial year Bengal’s annual per capita income was Rs 19,416.23 against the national average of Rs 18,765. Those who prepared the Prime Minister’s speech should have been more careful,” he added.

Quoting from a UNDP report, he said the growth rate of the gross domestic product of Bengal was 7.1 per cent in the last financial year against the national average of 4.3 per cent.

“We are ranked higher than the national average in the growth rate of agriculture and industry over the past few years. There has been no flight of capital from Bengal since 1994 and closing down of central public sector undertakings had aggravated the unemployment problem,” he said.

“At the last meeting of the National Development Council, I told the Prime Minister to have an action plan drawn up for the 15 crore unemployed in the country but nothing was done. Is there no unemployment in Uttar Pradesh' Is the situation any better in his own constituency of Lucknow' While criticising Bengal, the Prime Minister should also have said these things,” he said.

Vajpayee did say: “India has a lot of catching up to do. And within India, Bengal.”

Bhattacharjee had so far carefully avoided the path of confrontation — the only course in the past — with Delhi. Today, he clearly spoke the language of conflict.

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