| Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee at the CII meet. Picture by Kishor Roy Chowdhury
Calcutta, Sept. 26: “Cholbe na, cholbe na” will become “cholbe, cholbe” some day — Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee is hoping.
If wishes were horses, that day will certainly come, but until then the chief minister will have to hear every time he meets businessmen — used to doing their business in “will do, will do” states — what he is doing to change the negative perception about Bengal.
As Mumbai’s Adi Godrej did today at a gathering of businessmen for the national council meeting of the Confederation of Indian Industry.
“Mumbai was back on its feet a day after the blasts, but why was everything shut in Calcutta that day'” Godrej asked.
Although it should not surprise if Calcutta observed a bandh in protest against the blasts in Mumbai, the strike on August 26 was called by transport operators, bringing the city to a standstill. Five days before that there was a Bengal bandh.
The chief minister admitted to industry leaders that these continuous references to bandhs give him a “real headache” and that he wanted to hear the slogan in Bengal change from “cholbe na, cholbe na” to “cholbe, cholbe”.
Applause followed, expectedly, and the chief minister later was showered with praise for his honesty and plain-speaking. But this plain-speaking is beginning to sound like a broken record as it is played out every time he faces this uncomfortable question since nothing has changed at the ground level and he has been in power for over two years.
Today, for instance, while a galaxy of businessmen from across the country had descended on Calcutta for the CII meet, four rallies hit the streets — all with police permission. That’s why it is difficult to believe in a “will do, will do” day. The police thought nothing of giving permission only two days since a Calcutta High Court judge served them a contempt notice after getting held up by a rally.
Could rallies not have been stopped for only a day because they only add to the historical discomfiture of the chief minister' A top police officer replied: “The CII did not inform us that its leaders were meeting in the city today.”
How could the police not have known since the chief minister was attending the programme' The officer said his force had ensured a “free way for Bhattacharjee”.
This police force answers to Bhattacharjee and this is how responsive it is to issues that cause him embarrassment.
Bhattacharjee was saved the blushes because the rallies were not that big today. But embarrassment there was. After the free flow of praise from Anand Mahindra, the dapper president of the CII, by way of “you represent the best of the breed” and “you are setting an example in leadership”, the teasers came.
Godrej quizzed him about bandhs. David Friedman of Ford India asked: “The states are competing to attract investments. While other states are trying to market a positive perception among investors, you have a negative perception problem. What steps are you taking to reverse the negative perception'”
Bhattacharjee attributed the perception problem to the “historical legacy” and private capital’s “unjustified” fear of Left rule. “During a discussion with (former) US ambassador Robert Blackwill, I asked him if US companies can invest in China, what’s their fear in Bengal' We won’t nationalise industries here.”
It is not known if Blackwill told him that strikes are unknown in China.
“I am trying my best to erase the negative perception, but it can’t happen overnight. It will take some time,” said Bhattacharjee.
Industry recognises that. “No one needs to tell him about the problems in the state as he himself admits. It seems he is trying, but you can’t expect perceptions to change overnight,” said Godrej.
Businessmen are polite. But, as bandhs and rallies continue, they may well start asking themselves — how long is overnight: two years, three years, four years…'