Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee speaks to The Telegraph about policy debates in the CPM, the party-government relationship and his priorities, if elected back to power.
The Telegraph: There is an atmosphere of faith in Bengal, but those outside Bengal are often scared away by the statements of your party leaders in Delhi ' do you think the CPM politburo is detrimental to Bengal's economic growth'
Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee: As a communist party, we are going through profound changes. Earlier, the party would regard such changes in a theoretical context, but we have begun to view them from a practical standpoint.
Our party has traditionally opposed foreign direct investment, technology inflow and lately FDI in retail. But there was a breakthrough in the last party conference on FDI and related issues. We were also opposed to the World Bank and other international funding agencies. The debate is still on, but the attitude has changed.
We now accept international funds for development in 'standalone' sectors like health. We tell the funding agencies we will pay the interest for the assistance, but we will not allow you to come into Asim's (finance minister Asim Dasgupta) budget-making exercise.
At times, I may have to work in the face of what Fidel Castro has famously described as opposite current. But my objective is to strive towards the goal, carrying the party along, without getting deflected by the debate.
TT: But then Bengal is most affected by 'scary' statements'
BB:Our party is on a learning curve. But we have made it clear (to investors, planners and decision-makers) that we in Bengal decide what needs to be done in Bengal. (We have been able to convince the leadership that we cannot be tethered to dogma.) But there are (weighty) issues which I cannot clinch independently of the party.
TT: Such as'
BB: Airport modernisation. I have explained to Prakash (CPM general secretary Prakash Karat) I have got to have Calcutta airport modernised but there are hurdles. We as a party insist on modernisation through public-private partnership but Delhi wants to hand over airports to private parties. As a CPM member I cannot accept it, yet as head of the government, modernisation of Calcutta airport is a priority for me. Prakash says we will address the issue when we confront it. This will be among the areas of concern for us in the days ahead.
TT: And CITU'
BB:IT and trade unions will be another concern. We broadly agree that in IT, an employee or a professional has the right to form or join a trade union, but the choice must be left to him. Outsiders cannot be allowed to disrupt working or agitate in IT units.
TT: Why IT alone'
BB:Absolutely. In certain industries like jute or tea, wage agreements are already being concluded bypassing unions. But IT is structurally different from other industries, so the question of outsiders-run unions assumes a different hue here. However, Prakash is personally looking into various aspects to fix the party's approach to IT.
TT: Bengal has lost precious time. Aren't you late in your reforms'
BB:The past we all know ' Delhi politics and bureaucracy had us cornered, nothing much could be done till the eighties. Even after we announced in 1994 the industrial policy, the negative stereotype about Bengal continued. However, our image has begun to change. Ratan Tata feels strongly about Bengal, so do the 'Reliance' brothers (Mukesh and Anil Ambani), the Japanese are showing their faith in us by expanding investments in Haldia. Salim and a few other groups from Southeast Asia, too, are showing interest. Overall, the confidence level is rising.
TT: The Comptroller and Auditor General paints an alarming picture of state finances. After paying salaries, pension and repaying debt, your government has very little money for development. How would you service debt now standing at Rs 104,334 crore'
BB: That report relates to 2003-4, when we were in a critical condition. But the scene improved in 2005-06, thanks to the introduction of value-added tax, higher tax realisation and maximised excise revenue. We closed the 2005 fiscal with a surplus. However, the high debt remains a concern.
TT: You've been in power for 29 years, of which you had the same finance minister for 20. Should he not share the main burden for the mess'
BB: (Laughs) Well, permit me to own responsibility for the mess.
TT: You have been owning up for too many departments ' education, health, horticulture' Aren't you being a little hard on yourself'
BB: People have different or unusual work styles. There are some colleagues who would share details only with their diaries, not with the cabinet or me, even if they are of a critical nature. As a result, the government's overall goal remains unrealised. But they are no shirkers, they work in this fashion only to suffer quietly. These days I summon the secretaries concerned and ask them to share things with me directly. 'Sir, satya katha balbo (Do we tell the truth'),' they ask. 'I must know the whole truth, including the files that have been put on ice without reason,' I tell them.
TT: In most democracies, cabinets are frequently shuffled to reward the performers and penalise the laggards. The Left Front has never done so. Why'
BB: Shuffling the pack midway is a culture at the Centre. Be it the UPA or the NDA, the people running a coalition at the Centre are always under pressure from various quarters to accommodate power players. For the sake of continuity of policies, we allow a minister enough time to deliver.
TT: And 29 years is not long enough to deliver'
BB: If we are able to return to power, the next cabinet will judge its members only on performance. We are going to pick cabinet members carefully.
TT: How much freedom will you have in picking your team' Aren't your hands tied by quotas ' from affiliated units, districts'
BB: It is true. The CPM's take on the government is different from other parties. For instance, being a member of a communist party, I regard myself as one of the ministers who also heads the government. However, this time our thrust is on having only those in the cabinet who can perform. There will not be any other consideration. By dropping so many ministers and sitting MLAs and fielding new faces, we have issued a statement of our intent.
TT: You have cleaned the education stables. But what about those who have spent more than 20 years in the same office and have not delivered'
BB: I would rather stop this discussion here. Suffice it to say we have already completed the preliminary work, after taking the district units into confidence. Let the election be over, you will see how we deliver on the statement of intent.
TT: For you integrity and honesty constitute a mantra ' but the same cannot be said about several of your cabinet colleagues, a few of them are managing important departments.
BB: I am aware of it. Just wait for a while.
TT: Does the new approach include splitting the IT and environment ministries'
BB: I think IT and environment may have to be separated for efficient functioning.
TT: You have taken some initiatives in improving the state of education in Bengal, but structural hurdles remain.
BB: Without going into specifics, let me say universities and colleges have suffered because of political interference. I shall refrain from naming individual names, but it is a fact that our higher education minister ' Satyada (Satyasadhan Chakraborty, who has been dropped this time) is a good soul. He had come under intense pressure from different quarters (read CPM hierarchy) when he tried to implement government policies. Political people, lobbies made things difficult in higher education.
TT:Let's take just one hurdle. The government recruits teachers for private schools or colleges. Should such a system exist in a free market economy'
BB: The structure we have constructed over time will have to be examined, and, if necessary, changed. Our current exercise in granting autonomy to some government colleges offers an insight into our plans for re-creating centres of excellence. Certain noble, progressive concepts relating to higher education came unstuck in the past few decades, thanks to inefficiency of the (education) department and tinkering by lobbies and politicians.
TT: The CPM has historically opposed excellence. Even Amartya Sen's appointment in Jadavpur University was opposed ' by Jyoti Basu himself. Can you change all that'
BB:Our new agenda for education will emphasise quality and nurturing of talent. I have asked the department to ensure that an unbiased recruitment mechanism is put in place before it is too late. Just because one is aligned with the CPM does not mean he will have to be given a teaching or non-teaching job in an educational institution.