The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- To make new Bengal a reality, bandhs have to be eliminated

A spectre is haunting West Bengal — the spectre of bandhs. All the powers of old West Bengal are united in an unwitting but unholy alliance to perpetuate this spectre: the CPI(M) and Trinamool Congress, the Citu and the Congress, the SUCI and the loony fringe.

The fact that West Bengal narrowly escaped a 48-hour bandh on December 21 and 22 in no way diminishes the power of the spectre. Let it not be forgotten that in the first fortnight of December itself, there were three bandhs that paralysed the state. One of these was in fact an industrial strike called by Citu, but due to the overt collusion of the state administration and the ruling party, it became a bandh. The state administration and the CPI(M) seem to be following the bizarre double standard which says, “Our bandh good, their bandh bad.”

The double standard has other even more bizarre dimensions. The chief minister of the state, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, has made it abundantly clear that he will brook no opposition to his plan to industrialize West Bengal by wooing investments and capitalists. It is not unfair to assume that when the chief minister drew up his plan and thought of its execution, he took the consent of his party. The question of such a consent crops up because the CPI(M) is known to be a disciplined and centralized party that in the past has been strongly opposed to capitalism and capitalists.

Yet, the chief minister’s plans, ever since he put them on the drawing board, have been opposed by sections of his own party. The chief minister wanted to keep the IT sector out of the ambit of strikes and bandhs. He failed to achieve this. He was against the bandh on December 14; the bandh happened. So, while on the one hand the project to build a new and vibrant West Bengal remains the most important and the most visible one, the forces ranged against it on the other hand arise from the chief minister’s own party and remain active in sponsoring bandhs — the singlemost important factor in conveying the impression that West Bengal remains anti-industry and anti-work.

The chief minister, in other words, has completely failed to exorcize the spectre of bandhs. His failure is linked to his party’s reluctance to jettison bandhs as a viable political weapon in a democracy. This, in turn, is related to the baggage of the past that the CPI(M) carries.

After independence, it was the undivided communist party that used the instrument of bandhs to register its protest against the then ruling party. The history of the Fifties in West Bengal is dotted with such stoppages of work, culminating in the 72- hour bandh in 1959. In the Sixties, strikes and bandhs became even more common and were critical in the flight of capital that the state witnessed in that period. To bandhs was added a large peppering of street violence that targetted public property, especially buses and trams. This made for a heady cocktail, turning communists dizzy with the success of their muscle and disruptive powers. No comrade or fellow traveller paused to think what this meant for the future of West Bengal and for the lives of ordinary people.

Even after it came to power on a more or less permanent basis, the left, led by the CPI(M), used bandhs and disruption as modes of protest, modes of celebrating and even of mourning. How can the people of Calcutta forget the many rallies that choked the streets with alarming regularity' How can they forget that awesome funeral procession of Pramod Das Gupta, the legendary secretary of the West Bengal unit of the party, that brought the city to a complete standstill with disciplined cadre lining the route of the procession' How can they forget the victory rallies at the Brigade Parade Ground' How can they forget the state-sponsored bandhs to uphold this or that cause or to protest against this or that slight by oppressors in New Delhi or Washington' All this while West Bengal reeled under hours and hours of power cuts, when no public utility worked and when the infrastructure of the state tottered towards complete collapse. The comrades came and went talking of Lenin and Stalin.

Today when Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee looks around him and takes note of the opposition to his project, he can only see his own past staring back at him. Large sections of his own party, especially the Citu, continue to inhabit that past. Bhattacharjee is, in fact, hoist by his own party’s petard. It is the chief minister’s sorrow that his party has not grown with him.

Outside his party, the principal opposition comes in the person of Mamata Banerjee. Look at the weapons that she uses to protest against the chief minister’s plans and against left rule. Each and every one of them is from the communists’ arsenal. These are the weapons the CPI(M) has used again and again and with a success that devastated West Bengal. Mamata Banerjee is the CPI(M)’s best dis- ciple. Much as Ekalavya was Dronacharya’s.

A new West Bengal — the chief minister’s promise to the people of the state — cannot become a reality unless the spectre of bandhs and disruption is exorcized. The communists took the leadership in bringing this particular spectre to earth. They must now take the leadership to dismiss it. They cannot expect others to do this for them. History expects this of them.

It is, of course, unrealistic to expect that comrades, all of a sudden and altogether, will turn their back on their past, that they will abandon all that they have learnt and practised over the years. Such an enormous transformation needs a leader. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has taken on the onerous task of leading West Bengal. Will he also assume the even more difficult task of leading and transforming his own party'

Will the man with a vision for Bengal also play the exorcist' He has nothing to lose save his own past. He has nothing to fulfil save his own promise.

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