Sept. 29: Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has chosen to hold his tongue, his party has not.
In these contrasting responses to Justice Amitava Lala’s order banning rallies on weekdays in Calcutta lie the seeds of a conflict of interests between the chief minister and the party, the CPM. And not for the first time.
Last week, the chief minister had to fidget in his plush seat in a five-star hotel in Calcutta when industry leaders asked him about frequent bandhs in Bengal and what he was doing to dispel the negative perceptions about the state among prospective investors.
He did not have an answer other than a weak, though sincere, defence of himself and his administration. “We are trying,” he said, to battle against a historical burden. “But it cannot happen overnight.”
Businessmen admitted that they do not expect him to change a decades-old perception overnight.
Justice Lala’s order comes at an inopportune moment for the chief minister because it comes immediately after that conclave of businessmen who will now be looking closely at how he reacts.
“The ruling party must show the way to others,” said Nazeeb Arif, secretary-general of the Indian Chamber of Commerce.
The ruling party is, indeed, showing the way, but not in the manner Arif is expecting it to.
Without waiting to see the directive, the CPM central committee passed its judgment, saying the court cannot “curb” the “democratic rights of the citizens”. “The central committee deplores this form of judicial intervention,” said the party.
“It is an infringement on the democratic right of the citizens. The Constitution has provided for all citizens a fundamental right to assembly and express their views.”
In short, the party has already expressed the view for the chief minister, who himself preferred silence. “How can I comment out of hand' I have to first read the judgment,” the chief minister said.
It is not unusual for Bhattacharjee to be circumspect because he had made efforts earlier to restrict rallies in the city to three places, which is what the court has also said with the major addition that disruption cannot be caused on weekdays.
The chief minister had also conceded to the industry leaders last week that continuous talk of bandhs gives him a “headache”.
If the frequency of disruption to normal life does not drop perceptibly, Bengal’s so-called image, which he is trying to improve, will remain business-unfriendly.
Given the situation, the court order might actually prove a blessing for Bhattacharjee. His police can wave it before prospective rally organisers to deny permission. They can also use it to punish violators.
Armed with the court order, the administration can now do what it could not do on its own.
The chief minister’s first test will be whether or not to challenge the order. If the administration under him decides to contest the directive, it will send the unmistakable signal that Bhattacharjee does not believe what he says about changing Bengal’s image.
His party can go and contest the order. Or its labour arm, the Citu — also outraged by the judgment — can.
The CPM has interpreted the order to mean that all rallies have been banned, which is not the case. All that the judge has tried to do is bring some order to the organisation of rallies. If Harkishen Singh Surjeet and his comrades just stopped to think once, they would have found little to object to the judge’s order.
The central committee said: “The authorities can ensure reasonable restrictions and regulations but there can be no outright ban….”
If this is what the CPM really means, Bhattacharjee should have no problem from his party in enforcing the order. If it does not, the chief minister will again have to sacrifice his state’s interests to his party stand.