The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- The promise of a new Bengal has turned sour

The road to Hell is easy. — Virgil, Aeneid

What the Enlightened One gives with his right hand, he takes away with his left. That at least seems to be the policy of West Bengal’s Buddha who has at last achieved the Nirvana of power. A blissful state where nothing — conscience, truth, accountability — matters save the urge to be powerful and the willingness to dissemble in order to remain in power.

All this might sound terribly harsh to those who had seen in the new incarnation of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, as chief minister, West Bengal’s ray of hope. The man who, as a reformed communist, would lead the state’s economic and cultural revival. The chief minister did all he could to build this image. He admitted past wrongs; he disowned past policies; he said he would rectify policy; he advocated the reinstatement of a work culture. He projected himself as a chief minister with a difference, a chief minister who was sensitive and who was willing to listen. In an extraordinary interview to Ananda Bazar Patrika, a daily long considered untouchable by the comrades, the chief minister announced, “I fall upon the thorns of life, I bleed.” It was a new voice.

Accolades came to the chief minister thick and fast. Chambers of commerce, media persons, visiting dignitaries and diplomats sang his praises and looked forward to the dawning of a new era in West Bengal. Yesterday’s critics became today’s encomiasts. Bhattacharjee lapped all this up. There was a new glow on his face and a new confidence in his stride and speech.

After the last fortnight or so, many newly-converted Buddhists might feel a little let down. They may even be forced to reconsider their evaluation of the chief minister as having been a bit premature.

When the judgment banning rallies by Amitava Lala set the cat among the pigeons, the chief minister maintained what many considered to be a discreet silence. But the fact that his government appealed against the ruling was enough indication of Bhattacharjee’s attitude and thinking on the subject. Obviously, the verdict did not win the approval of the chief minister. This was fortified by the pronouncements made by various leaders of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), from Jyoti Basu to Anil Biswas and Biman Bose. Bhattacharjee sat by and saw the ruling being flouted before it was stayed by the high court. Suddenly, the promise of a new West Bengal had turned sour. For a few days, West Bengal had been perilously close to being a state where law had no force. The chief minister, in his wisdom, uttered no words of reassurance to the hapless citizens of the state or to potential investors. What signals did Bhattacharjee send out about his intentions and about his priorities' It was clear to all but the most obtuse observer that the party would prevail over the government. The new chief minister was no different than the old one save in his pretensions.

But worse followed. Before the high court had stayed Lala’s ruling, the chief minister was asked on Friday about two rallies that had disrupted the city’s centre. He first said that all questions do not have an answer and followed it up by saying that he hadn’t heard the question. It was a superlative piece of dissembling. If this was not appalling enough, Bhattacharjee excelled himself on Thursday.

Asked why he hadn’t visited the family of Shabana Parveen, the six-month-old who died on Tuesday, Bhattacharjee said, “Whoever thought I might go there'” The answer to that question is simple. People expected him to go because he himself had set a precedent before the elections when he had gone to a village which had been raided by robbers. Moreover, the expectation was based on Bhattacharjee’s projection of himself as a sensitive chief minister. When this was pointed out to him, he accused the journalist who made the poser of asking mischievous and tutored questions. He told the journalist that “we do not do politics after receiving salaries”. The barb was directed at journalists who receive salaries and therefore, according to the logic of Alimuddin Street, cannot be independent. One minor point, Mr Bhattacharjee. You do receive a salary as chief minister and that salary is paid by the people. You are thus duty-bound to answer questions and be accountable. If you do not answer questions and if you pretend that you haven’t heard the questions, you have no right to continue as a public servant. You are welcome to be a party-worker.

Bhattacharjee has made a rather poor showing of himself. Yet he could have used Lala’s verdict to his own advantage since he had started an initiative to restrict rallies within the city. But he has thrown the baby out with the bath water.

The most important question is why this has happened. Why this marked retreat from a chief minister who spoke in a different voice, who promised a different West Bengal' The old clichés are back. Journalists are motivated and directed by those who pay them. There is also the old closure, “You are too young to understand why we engage in politics.’’ The suspicion is that just as a leopard doesn’t change its spots, a Stalinist does not change his attitudes and his mindset.

What are the characteristics of this mindset' Its identifying marks are a smugness of power and a continuous and deliberate purveying of misinformation. It is driven by an absence of conscience and it is relentless in its pursuit of imposing itself on others by silencing and intimidating them. This is the mindset of utter immorality. It is the mindset that can order with certainty the destruction of the old churches of Moscow, send millions to the gulag, kill millions in gas chambers and bomb a country without provocation. Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, George Bush…the gallery of evil.

These characteristics have been drilled into Bhattacharjee by his party’s discipline. He covers this by talking of Bergman and Kurosawa and Proust and Joyce. But he belongs to that mindset that “produces hangmen and real tears together”. Thus Bhattacharjee bleeds or pretends to. Stalin would have no problems recognizing him and would probably greet him with the cry “hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère!”.

There are a handful of educated people in the CPI(M) who will inform Bhattacharjee about the provenance of that quotation. What they will not tell him, alas, is that all flowers have withered in the hell called West Bengal.

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