Bloc climbs 65-year mountain

First Bengal unit chief appointed since Everest was conquered

By Sandip Chowdhury in Calcutta
  • Published 20.03.17

Calcutta, March 19: The last time that Left Front partner Forward Bloc had appointed a Bengal unit chief, India was still to win a single Test match and the Everest had yet not been conquered.

Today, as the party elected a new state general secretary after more than 65 years, it began efforts to conquer its own Everest by discussing the need to retire old leaders.

It's a mountain that Left parties in India have in general been trying to climb though with little success so far.

Naren Chatterjee, the state Bloc secretariat member elevated to the top job today, had not even been born when predecessor Ashok Ghosh had taken charge of the Bengal unit in 1951. Ashok had replaced Haren Ghosh, who was state general secretary till his death.

Ashok died on March 3 last year, aged 93. Barun Mukherjee, 83, ran the show as acting general secretary till the party's state council elected Chatterjee unanimously today.

"It's going to be difficult to occupy the position Ashokda had held for so many years," Chatterjee, who turned 57 in January, said.


Asked if the wait for him and his generation had been too long, he sidestepped the question: "Ashokda was like a banyan tree for us."

Chatterjee is the youngest among his peers in the Left Front. The CPM's Surjya Kanta Mishra is 67, the RSP's Kshiti Goswami is 75 and the CPI's Probodh Panda is 71.

"We don't talk about age openly, but it's become a serious issue in Left parties like ours because most of our leaders are old," acknowledged Hafiz Alam Sairani, Forward Bloc state secretariat member and former minister who is in his late 50s.

"Today, for the first time in my memory, the need for senior leaders to take voluntary retirement came up for discussion at our party's council meeting."

Forward Bloc sources said the party's all-India general secretary, Debabrata Biswas, 72, today expressed willingness to step down during the party congress next year, triggering a larger exchange of views on retirement.

"Most senior leaders are unwilling to retire, but thanks to Debuda (Biswas), the issue came up for discussion," a party insider said.

Several Bloc insiders said the subject could not be discussed earlier for fear of hurting sentiments. "Many of us wanted a change of guard when Ashokda was alive but no one wanted to say it openly as it would have hurt him," a source said.

Front mainstay CPM is grappling with the same problem, with seniors like Biman Bose, 76, Prakash Karat, 69, V.S. Achuthanandan, 93, and Pinarayi Vijayan, 72, in no hurry to retire. CPM insiders said Bose had had to reluctantly make way for Mishra as party state secretary in 2015 at the insistence of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, an exception among top Leftists who has been trying to hang up his boots for the last few years.

"But Bimanda appeared to be struggling to reconcile himself to the change: at many of the campaign meetings before last summer's Assembly polls, he introduced Mishra as leader of the Opposition in the Assembly and not as the party's state secretary," a CPM state committee member said.

After the election rout, the Bengal CPM, which has been talking of infusing itself with fresh blood for years, tried to bite the age bullet at its state plenum last October. It adopted a proposal to retire inactive party members.

But the decision is yet to be implemented, as evident from the composition of the state secretariat. Most of the 18 comrades in the party's highest decision-making body in the state are seventy-plus.

"Memberships are renewed between January and March. We'll learn only in April whether the decision taken at the plenum has been enforced," a CPM source said.

A Bloc insider too said that although the state council had discussed retirement, only time will tell whether it would come to anything.

India won its first Test on February 10, 1952, beating England by an innings and 8 runs in the then Madras. Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary climbed Everest on May 29 the following year.