In an interview to Indranil Ghosh of The Telegraph, Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee talks about possible post-poll scenarios, the challenge of the current election, his plans for Calcutta, his wife Meera’s debut as a campaigner and about daughter Suchetana. No, she’s not wild about politics. She prefers wildlife.
The Telegraph: Three rounds of election are over, trends thrown up by the exit polls are before you — what do you see when you peer into your crystal ball'
Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee: I do not have much faith in such polls. However, I have information from reliable sources that the NDA is going to lose seats and miss the target it was so confident of touching before the election.
TT: After committing that “historic blunder” (when the CPM stopped Jyoti Basu from becoming Prime Minister), the Left has been looking for an opportunity to present an alternative to the NDA for some time. Do you think your moment has come'
BB: Our first objective is to try and dislodge the Vajpayee government. Sitting in a secure environment in Bengal, it is difficult to imagine what damage they (BJP) have caused to Indian society. We have to get the Left, secular groups and regional outfits under an umbrella and make a pitch for government formation. However, such an exercise will depend on how we fare in the numbers game. If we do not get the necessary numbers, our only option will be supporting the Congress.
TT: What will be your position in a Congress-led government'
BB: There is no question of our participation in it or even in a core committee that may have to be formed to oversee its functioning. We shall never join any Congress-led coalition because the basic difference between us and them on economic policies still persists. How can we forget that their Manmohan Singh is the first torchbearer of the IMF'
TT: Will you support the Congress only if they put up someone other than Sonia Gandhi as the Prime Minister'
BB: Our party’s position is: who their Prime Minister is is the Congress’ business.
TT: Resolving the issue of PM will be a major headache for the Opposition. Mulayam Singh Yadav, once the darling of the Left, may queer the pitch.
BB: Mulayam is capable of doing the most unexpected things.
TT: Even Sharad Pawar is capable of bolting.
BB: Pawar is unwell. I phoned him a few days ago to find out how he is doing after the operation. I do not deny the existence of factors like Mulayam or Pawar. At this point, we are not thinking about individuals. We are exploring the possibility of structuring a combine with ourselves, Laloo Prasad Yadav’s RJD, Mulayam’s Samajwadi Party, Asom Gana Parishad, Karunanidhi’s DMK. Our first priority is to get a combine up on the ground.
TT: What are the issues in this election'
BB: Economic policies, secularism and development. The phrases they (BJP) have coined, feel-good or India Shining, may look great on TV or in a newspaper ad, but they cannot mask the crushing poverty, hunger or diminution of human beings. The death of 25 women in a stampede for free saris is a grim reflection of reality. Similarly, minorities, who have played no less significant a role in nation building, will seek an explanation for the Gujarat killings.
TT: Trinamul leader Mamata Banerjee’s campaign is focused on the failures of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s government. She says any increase in her party’s MP numbers should be taken as an expression of no-confidence of the people in your government.
BB: Like always, she has got it wrong. How can a state government be critically evaluated in a parliamentary election, and not the federal government'
TT: You have been in office for about three years, how do you react to the idea of a mid-term appraisal'
BB:I feel fine. In fact, I believe our share of seats should increase this time on the strength of our performance. In the past 27 years we have achieved unparalleled success in the rural sector, and we have begun to turn around in the past three years in the industrial sector.
TT: Have you seen the prima facie co-relation between development and the downfall of its initiators' Look at the downfall of Digvijay Singh of Madhya Pradesh and Ashok Gehlot of Rajasthan or the current slide of Andhra’s Chandrababu Naidu and Karnataka’s S.M. Krishna'
BB: (Laughs) There is no co-relation between the two. A government always faces the anti-incumbency factor in an election. Bengal is no exception to this. Unlike the gurus you have just mentioned, the Left Front had the foresight to buttress and expand the rural economy.
TT: You do not seem to be much impressed with development in Andhra or Maharashtra'
BB: Look, Hyderabad or Mumbai are many times brighter than Calcutta. But what about the poverty trap that lies across rural Andhra and Maharashtra. A few months ago, I travelled through Nalgonda district (Andhra) and saw for myself how people are living in abject conditions. Similarly, beyond Nashik (Maharashtra), people suffer from malnutrition, go without food and education. What’s more, there is no government intervention in either of the states to ensure food security or land reforms.
TT: Isn’t the Left’s over-emphasis on rural Bengal the cause of its eclipse in Calcutta and adjoining areas where five seats are controlled by the Trinamul-BJP combine'
BB: Mark my words, our candidates are going to spring more than one surprise in Calcutta and adjoining areas. For example, it may not be visible to untrained eyes how well entrenched we are in Calcutta Northeast.
TT: Isn’t this the constituency where your wife’s (Meera) debut as a poll campaigner has taken place'
BB: (Laughs) She is fond of (Mohammad) Selim (the CPM candidate). When she told me she wanted to help Selim, I obviously said, ‘yes, go and help him’.
TT: Aren’t politicians’ children the flavour of this election — Rahul, Priyanka'
BB: I know what you are hinting at. My daughter (Suchetana, a former member of the CPM’s student wing) is more interested in wildlife, which frequently takes her to the Sunderbans. She is full of leopards, red pandas, and so on. At times, like any normal father, I worry when she is away on such a trip. But I am one hundred per cent with her.
TT: The Opposition posted its best performance in 1984 when the undivided Congress bagged a record 16 seats following Indira Gandhi’s assassination. Don’t you think that the Opposition controlling 13 seats or the BJP having two MPs in the present context of total Left dominance actually constitute a disturbing signal for you'
BB: It does not. If anything, the Opposition is going to lose seats.
TT: You know how wicked the rumour mill is, especially during an election'
BB: Tell me, what does it say now'
TT: That the CPM has gifted the Jangipur seat to Pranab Mukherjee (Congress)'
BB:There is no question of gifting any seat to anybody. Jangipur appears to be a little tough now, but we are going flat out for it.
TT: Then why does Pranab-babu look so elated these days'
BB: (Smiles) Not because of us. Maybe because of things known only to him.
TT: How do you hope to regain Calcutta'
BB: Many do not understand that Calcutta’s political chemistry has changed. It will further change in our favour in the days ahead. We are committed to developing Calcutta as a modern, international city. Changes are already noticeable: the flyovers, the shopping malls, the hotels, multiplexes, ultramodern housing complexes that have come up in the past three years. Many more are on the cards. Also, look at the retail boom. Our programme for Calcutta’s beautification will be fully visible after the election. There will be more parks, open spaces, roads. People will support us for the showcasing we have begun.