The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Long way to go, but way clear
- Modest about performance, chief minister lays out road ahead

Into his third year in office, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee would only give his government a modest five out of 10, though he does mention that in one “wild instance” it had been marked 11 out of 10.

Self-assessment came after some persuasion during an interview of the chief minister with The Telegraph — “I am not a fool to get down to judging the performance of my own government….(But) if you insist…,” he said.

So, 5/10 it is — out of modesty, may be. Or, as Bhattacharjee said, “I know we will have to go a long way.”

In certain areas, the chief minister appeared to indicate he was aware of the path the government would take. In the wake of some recent incidents where business has suffered because of trade union trouble — at the port and at Wimco, for instance — Bhattacharjee made it clear what his method of operation would be.

“I have told the trade unions, including Citu, that I would not tolerate vandalism or retrograde steps like gherao. If such things occur, I will have them arrested, disregarding political colour.”

Bhattacharjee cited an example of this determination — at the Pepsi factory at Sonarpur, where two groups of workers clashed and the chief minister had some arrested. According to him, some of the arrested were from his own party.

“When I visited the factory a few weeks later, a few of my CPM people asked me: ‘Buddhada, why didn’t you get the real story from us first'’ I shot back: ‘Did you ask me before getting into a fight and disrupting production'’.”

In spite of this display of firmness, he admits he is “on edge” — given the reputation Bengal has acquired, deservedly or otherwise — “thinking about the new units that have come up in Salt Lake where nearly 16,000-17,000 people work in companies like IBM, Cognizant and Wipro”.

He also recognises that the iron fist cannot always be shaken without a kid glove — at times one will work and at others a combination.

“Citu has its own compulsions and problems. Besides, there is the old school of thought, both in Citu and the CPM. Against this background, we need to do a lot of tightrope walking.”

This walking is being done with the help of a balancing beam of some sort of a theoretical framework. “In the transitional phase of globalisation, a certain amount of conflict between management and labour is unavoidable. As the final arbiter, the government must be cautious about how it picks its way through issues, emotions and considerations that provoke such conflicts.”

Bhattacharjee draws attention to the contrast between the old — jute, tea, engineering, etc., where conflicts are occurring — and the new — represented by Marubeni and Mitsubishi, which are untouched by strife.

A key difference from the past is the clarity of thought. What to do with loss-making state undertakings is a problem that has tormented the CPM for long for fear that any decision other than continuing to put up with the losses will be seen as a betrayal of workers.

Bhattacharjee affirmed the government’s declared policy under which the undertakings have been classed as “red” (to be closed down); “yellow” (to be privatised, entirely or partially) and “green” (to remain under the state, for now).

In this context, he makes an important policy statement.

“Because of our inability to understand economic realities, we have wasted taxpayers’ money to maintain these unproductive, large companies. If we continue to do that, we will all be ruined before long. My party, which has a modern outlook, understands the changing realities. This approach will be replicated in other areas.”

He does emphasise that a safety net will be put in place for labour. The British Department for International Development will fund a voluntary retirement scheme.

Economic reality brings him to what are often labelled unpopular measures such as increasing tuition fees in schools and colleges, and taxes.

“There was a time when we went to college and paid a tuition fee of Rs 10 a month. But I cannot demand my daughter pay Rs 15. Those clamouring against a revision can’t explain how the same student spends Rs 25-50 at the Coffee House. Similarly, one would want to possess land but not pay tax. It’s not funny.”

It does appear, though, that — despite Bhattacharjee’s assertion — the government’s move to raise tuition fees for medical education, for instance, has not been without its share of hiccups. The increase has been rolled back once and will perhaps be rolled back again.

Education is a subject about which the chief minister feels passionately, admitting that there are unfinished tasks.

“I am concerned, very concerned at the pathetic quality of teaching in primary schools. We are trying to improve the infrastructure, increase the number of teachers and, more important, equip teachers with the skill to teach English. We have entered into a collaboration with the British Council, which will prepare a format for teaching our teachers.”

There is a little irony that is difficult to miss. A government which had once almost junked English teaching in schools is now trying to improve just that, as part of restoration of the subject at the primary level.

The CPM has come a long way and another journey may have just begun for the Left Front.

So, how does Alimuddin Street view his government’s performance'

“We do not discuss such issues, but I believe the party will say, ‘well, you people are doing OK’.”

For a CPM chief minister, that’s a higher rating than 11 out of 10.

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