| In a duet
Words, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein famously declared, are also deeds. Words do something, they have intent and purpose. The question may legitimately be asked what Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee was doing, or trying to do, when he uttered the words of regret in New Delhi.
His statement can be broken up into three components. One was an apology for having said that those opposed to the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Nandigram had been paid back in their own coin; and, as chief minister of West Bengal, for having spoken of “us” and “them”. Two, he was admitting in unambiguous terms that Nandigram represented an administrative and political failure. And three, he was declaring his openness to a dialogue with members of the Left intelligentsia who, in the aftermath of the violence in Nandigram in early November, had expressed their disillusionment with him and his party.
At one very obvious level, Bhattacharjee was attempting to recover lost ground. An individual is made up of multiple and overlapping identities. One of the identities of which Bhattacharjee has always been proud is that of an intellectual. He is proud that he reads books; has Tagore, Jibanananda Das and other poets at his fingertips; he is more comfortable in the company of artists and poets than that of politicians. He once said in an interview that when he feels depressed or down he immerses himself in Proust and Joyce. Immediately after he became chief minister, he described his own situation by quoting Shelley: “I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!”
For such a person it is not easy to accept the loss of goodwill of large sections of the Left intelligentsia (including that of one of his favourite contemporary poets who he referred to fondly as Sankhada, even after Sankha Ghosh had spoken out against Nandigram). If Bhattacharjee, as a lifelong worker of the CPI(M), had a core constituency, it was the Left intelligentsia. The violence in Nandigram and his subsequent partisan utterances made this intelligentsia see Bhattacharjee without his intellectual mask. He is now eager to dispel the disillusionment. It cannot be without significance that in describing his relationship with the governor of West Bengal, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, the chief minister said that he exchanges books with him.
The admission that Nandigram was an administrative and political failure was intended to dissociate the government from the party. The government had failed to quell the unrest in Nandigram, and this had created the opportunity for the party cadre to move in. By admitting this failure, Bhattacharjee is trying to reclaim his status as a chief minister who is honest, transparent and not unwilling to admit to failures and errors. One wonders if he has quite thought through the implications of this admission. From March 2007 to November 2007, Bhattacharjee’s government did scarce little to restore normalcy in the area; it started no process to bring back those who had fled from their homes and their occupations. If the state’s own resources were not adequate, why didn’t Bhattacharjee ask for the CRPF till so very late in the day' There is evidence that initially the CRPF was not allowed to move into the area and to operate freely. Prima facie all this suggests something more than failure on the part of the government: it suggests connivance. Even if such a conclusion is taken to be prejudiced, what does the straightforward admission of failure on the part of the chief minister say about the competence of his government and even about his own competence' It is not enough to say that it was a failure. As the chief minister of the state, he owes the people of West Bengal an explanation: why did he fail' What is the guarantee that such crass incompetence will not recur'
I have left the most important component till the last. This is Bhattacharjee’s statement that he should not have said what he had about the violence in Nandigram. Here is an attempt to reestablish himself as the chief minister, after having spoken like a loyal party person and thus having landed himself in a soup. I do not want to raise the question of Bhattacharjee’s sincerity. What is critical, however, is that certain aspects slip through the gap between the intentions behind his statements and their reception.
Bhattacharjee expressed regret for what he had said, not for what his party had done. His (in)famous words after the Nandigram incident in early November were, in fact, uttered to justify the violence of the CPI(M) cadre. There is thus an element of disingenuity in the expression of regret. It is not enough to apologize for words: as chief minister, Bhattacharjee needs to say sorry for deeds.
There is another significant aspect that cannot be allowed to pass without comment. This is Bhattacharjee’s choice of location. He chose to make the statement in New Delhi. It would be unreasonable to assume that the choice was not deliberate. New Delhi is as far removed from the people of Nandigram and their problems as one can imagine. Bhattacharjee could equally well have voiced his regret in New York or Beijing. Even after his return to Calcutta, there has been no echo of the statement in anything that Bhattacharjee has said. What was he attempting when he chose to speak in Delhi and not in Calcutta or Nandigram' Who was his target audience'
The decision to speak in New Delhi may have had something to do with the timing: Bhattacharjee spoke immediately after the conclusion of the politburo meeting in the capital. This leads to the suspicion that he spoke only with the sanction of the highest body of his party. In other words, he was not speaking as a chief minister, but as a party person. It is within the realms of possibility that Bhattacharjee persuaded his comrades in the politburo that he should make a statement expressing his regret to try and retrieve some of the goodwill he and his party had lost subsequent to Nandigram. Whatever be the background, this much is clear that there exists some confusion between Bhattacharjee’s constitutional role as a chief minister and his role as an ideologue of the CPI(M). Time and again, he has given precedence to the latter, thus violating the former.
This is not the first time that Bhattacharjee has expressed regret over violence in Nandigram. One of his former supporters has alleged that he did it once before — after March 14 — but was unable to prevent the November outbreak. This would suggest that Bhattacharjee has little or no control over his party, and the latter makes him transgress his role as chief minister. A less charitable view of things is that Bhattacharjee is not such an unwilling victim of circumstances. One cannot forget, that when Brinda Karat gave her call for Dum Dum dawai, Bhattacharjee was next to her on the dais. How credible is Bhattacharjee’s willingness to talk to the intelligentsia when that same intelligentsia is described in his presence by Prakash Karat as anti-people and anti-country' Will it be too unfair to suspect that there is a duet going on between Bhattacharjee and the CPI(M) leadership, the former representing the “soft” face, the latter the “hard” one' The proverbial carrot and the stick.
Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s credibility and goodwill are at their lowest today. He has no enemies, but none of his friends likes him. If he is to appear sincere, he must follow up his regret by separating his government from the party; he must govern, instead of listening to a party he considers infallible. Without these follow-up measures, he will convince only the converted.