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Since 1st March, 1999
 
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NOTHING REALLY EXTRAORDINARY

Extraordinary things happened during the municipal elections in Salt Lake. But what I find even more extraordinary are the explanations offered for these happenings. You have to be extraordinarily credulous to believe them.

Let us start with the unusual happenings. The first, of course, is the spectacle of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee's police pushing around, if not actually beating, important men of his own Communist Party of India (Marxist). One of them is Amitava Nandy, Lok Sabha member of the party from the area, and the other Joykrishna Ghosh, longtime aide of former chief minister, Jyoti Basu. The media pictures of Ghosh with a bruised cheek and dishevelled hair, and of a distraught Nandy fuming at the police told the story.

Basu himself underscored how unusual things were when he remarked that he could never imagine the police behaving in this manner in a left-ruled Bengal. He even asked the party for an inquiry, which essentially meant an inquiry into the conduct of Bhattacharjee, who is also the police minister. Very extraordinary, indeed, for the CPI(M)'s famed party discipline.

It was almost a throwback to the days of the Congress rule in Bengal, when Siddhartha Shankar Ray would often use the police to intervene in the murderous factional fights in the party. Such things happened in the Bengal Congress when the party was in terminal decline in the state. Have things in the CPI(M) come to such a pass' Being the ruling party for 28 years has done all kinds of things to the CPI(M). But it is still unthinkable that the party's factional problems have hit such a low that Basu would call for an inquiry into the actions of Bhattacharjee, whom he had groomed as his successor.

From the viewpoint of the Salt Lake voters, though, the most unusual thing on the polling day was not the police action on Ghosh and Nandy or even Basu's comments on it. For them, it was the huge mobilization of CPI(M) workers from outside the area. This time, they were not confined to the party's booth camps. They virtually took over all roads leading to the booths. In many places, they stood guard close to the voters' queues and in some others, they were right inside the booths.

'So, what is new' you could ask if you thought the CPI(M) always did such things during the elections. The difference, voters in Salt Lake would tell you, was that they had never seen such a massive presence of outsiders on polling days.

Now the explanations. We are told that the chief minister had given firm instructions to the police to act impartially and to spare no one, including his partymen, if they were found to be doing unlawful things inside or outside the booths. This, we are told, was a departure from the CPI(M)'s past practices when the police would look the other way if the party's boys played some unfair poll games.

And this change of face was supposed to have been prompted by the meeting between Bhattacharjee and the new chief election commissioner, B.B. Tandon. The next assembly polls are less than a year away and the chief minister used these polls to try and clean up the mess well in advance. So, errant party boys and some overzealous leaders had to face the music.

The second explanation was linked to the first. It said that it was the unputdownable Subhas Chakraborty who was at the centre of the Salt Lake mess. It was his men from outside Salt Lake who filled its streets. Had not Chakraborty himself defended bringing comrades from outside to help local partymen during the elections' And, Salt Lake is his only fiefdom left and Basu his only support in the party leadership. Marginalized in the party, he would lose whatever little political clout he had if the party lost the polls in Salt Lake. So he left nothing to chance and overdid things to become the fall guy.

Now for the absurdity of these explanations and I take the second explanation first. We know that Chakraborty is a maverick and that his position in the party hierarchy is weak. But to suggest that he set the party's agenda for Salt Lake elections all by himself is to get the CPI(M)'s election strategies entirely wrong. For good or for bad, it is the party, and not any individual, however influential, that matters most in the CPI(M).

And, since public memory is short, it has not been remembered that Anil Biswas, the state party secretary, had talked of mobilizing the cadre from outside for the elections in Calcutta and Salt Lake once the civic polls in the districts were over in May. So, it would be na've to lay the blame for whatever happened in Salt Lake at Chakraborty's door only. Also remember that Salt Lake had witnessed violence and vote-snatching in some wards in the 2000 elections too. If things at Salt Lake had been extraordinary, the difference perhaps lay in the degree of the CPI(M) cadre's interference in the polls.

The other explanation also carries very little conviction. It could well be that the chief minister had his reports of potential trouble at Salt Lake and acted firmly so that he did not have to go to the next year's polls with a battered image. But are we to believe that he had one set of instructions for Salt Lake and another for Calcutta' If not, how does one explain the fact that the police did very little to stop rigging in many areas in Calcutta'

Even in Salt Lake, despite the police action that stole the limelight, the 100 per cent rise in left votes since the last Lok Sabha elections in 2004 would make one suspect that the police generally looked the other way, while the vote was being manipulated. So, while the police action was highlighted in the media, much to the chief minister's satisfaction, the real story may have been very different.

That is not to say, however, that the left could not have won the elections without stealing the vote in places where it did so. The left's chances of victory actually brightened after Arunava Ghosh, the most high-profile Trinamool Congress leader in Salt Lake, left the party on the eve of the polls, accusing Mamata Banerjee of putting up 'corrupt' candidates.

Even otherwise, the Trinamool has been a declining force all over Bengal since the Lok Sabha polls of 2004. The CPI(M)'s recovery of the Dum Dum parliamentary constituency, which comprises Salt Lake, in those elections showed that changing pattern. And, in Calcutta, the return of the left at the 'corporation building' on S.N. Banerjee Road was a foregone conclusion after the revolt of the mayor, Subrata Mukherjee, against his party and leader.

So, why did the party, and not just Chakraborty, make such a mess in Salt Lake' There could be many answers to choose from. But the one which says that Chakraborty did it against the wishes of the party is not one of them. No one knows this better than the triumvirate of Bhattacharjee, Biswas and Biman Bose that reigns supreme at Alimuddin Street. That is why, contrary to the explanations, I think the elections in Salt Lake, instead of redeeming the chief minister's image, have actually tarnished it.

I have a feeling that Alimuddin Street too feels the same way. That is why the leaders are now calling it a 'closed chapter'. Keeping it open could mean opening a Pandora's box that could embarrass both the chief minister and his party.

And, I have no doubt that the issue will be debated within the party. It will be a 'closed chapter' only for the people and the media. But the people will continue to ask questions about the Salt Lake episode and what it means for the CPI(M)'s ways with elections.

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