The communist leader’s rude refusal to accept the Padma Bhushan the nation bestowed on him is typical of the West Bengal political class
Buddhadeb Bhattacharya’s arrogant and rude refusal to accept the Padma Bhushan the nation bestowed on him is typical of the West Bengal political class. That he hesitated for a day before making his less than honest statement that he had not been sounded in advance, is telling, but in context, probably irrelevant.
Bhattacharya, 1944 born, Presidency College educated, ailing, side-lined, was squarely blamed for the Left Front’s more or less permanent exit from power in West Bengal after more than three decades.
In 2022, he was probably bestowed the honour he spurned so petulantly for trying to revive the industrialisation of West Bengal during his tenure as chief minister from 2000 to 2011. That there is no love lost between the communists and the BJP/RSS is clear. So, this honour was not an attempt to revise the narrative, only to acknowledge his failed but laudable efforts.
Bhattacharya has not been treated very well by his own side, despite his misplaced loyalty to the convoluted thinking of the present remnants of the Marxists in India. He was once a respected member of the Politburo of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPM, and an MLA from the Jadavpur constituency for 24 years, till his calamitous year, 2011.
In addition, Bhattacharya was expelled from the Politburo and the Central Committee at the CPM 21st party congress at Vishakapatnam in 2015.
But, as the saying goes, once a communist, always a communist.
Bhattacharya, even in his twilight years, was forced to signal that he wanted no truck with the Hindu nationalist government of Narendra Modi that wanted to honour him on behalf of the nation.
This form of bitter toxicity has been bred into the Indian communists over decades. This time too, the party leadership worked the phones to insist he decline the honour.
Such communist obtuseness can work in the nation’s favour too. A long time ago, then Chief Minister of West Bengal Jyoti Basu was prevented from moving to the Centre as Prime Minister by the Politburo and Central Committee of the CPM. Some called it a ‘historical blunder’, but the nation was spared the imposition of a notoriously anti-business chief executive.
In the 1990s, late CPM veteran and the first chief minister of Kerala EMS Namboodripad had also turned down the PV Narasimha Rao government’s award of the Padma Vibhushan. Again, at the behest of his party men.
This has become the political culture of West Bengal beyond the Left. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee sat tight on her front row chair instead of receiving the West Bengal Governor Dhankhar as he alighted from his car when he arrived at the Republic Day celebrations in Kolkata on Wednesday.
There are many other instances of TMC supremo and CM Mamata Banerjee’s crass behaviour verging on the unconstitutional. But she is only carrying on a Left Front tradition, street-smart fashion, obviously without the finesse of the Inner Temple barrister Jyoti Basu.
Jyoti Basu also had to contend with the imperial Indira Gandhi for a lengthy time as the West Bengal CM. That his support and that of the communists in the Lok Sabha was crucial to the stability of the Indira Gandhi government and subsequent UPA governments, was a historical lubricant to keep things from turning unduly adversarial.
It also allowed Basu and the Left Front to get away with multiple bloody atrocities in the hinterland, while the Centre turned a blind eye. There was also a deadly quid pro quo in place with profound consequences.
Over decades, Leftist indoctrination and propaganda reigned, including the infiltration of all educational, cultural and academic institutions, course material for students, the historical narrative, the promotion of darbari and sarkari Leftist intellectuals all over the country.
The Marxists were entrenched in, and ran the states of West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura then. In all of these places, there were communal massacres and ruthless suppression of dissent. Land was redistributed to the landless using exemplary force.
But in West Bengal, and in the other communist states, the top man posed as a gentleman. All through his political career, Basu maintained a bhadralok-cum-Brown Sahib demeanour. It worked just fine with the Bengali intelligentsia in then Calcutta. None were too keen to probe at the seamier truth.
Not only were cadres created in the rural areas by means of forced land redistribution and money grants, but under Basu’s stewardship, the trade unions were so blatantly indulged that almost all industry and commerce fled West Bengal. Only geographically anchored tea, some jute, cigarettes and a few other enterprises survive as going concerns to this day.
The rise of the Left in West Bengal, ironically, has its roots in brutal suppression as well. It came to power after the slaughter inflicted on the Naxalites by the last Congress chief minister of West Bengal, Siddhartha Shankar Ray. Ray was so good at wiping out insurgents that he got another turn in Punjab during the Khalistan movement under Indira Gandhi.
In West Bengal, Ray’s brutality in the 1970s in putting down the urban and rural Naxalites saw to it that the Congress never won another election in the state ever since. The beginning of the ‘insider-outsider’ narrative also began then, with Congress continuing at the Centre.
In Punjab, the Congress has alternated with the Akali Dal for decades, both before the Khalistani carnage and after. Not even the pogrom against Sikhs after the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi wrecked the Congress electorally in Punjab, till, perhaps, now.
Temperamentally, West Bengal is different because of communist indoctrination, largely missing in Punjab.
It is so deep, that when you change the party at the hustings, as long as it is home-grown in the state, unlike the ‘outsider’ BJP, you do no more than change the label.
Buddhadeb Bhattacharya lost the state finally in 2011 after deep setbacks in the Lok Sabha elections held in 2009, and was the prelude to the rise of Mamata Banerjee. Revival of industry did not make sense with the people of the state long indoctrinated against it.
He tried to place the Tata Nano project near Calcutta, but Mamata Banerjee turned the peasants against it and rode to power on the back of this accomplishment.
Culturally, the communists continue to be loyal followers of Red China even under Xi Jinping, rather than Mao. Let us also understand that the West Bengal communists never raised the National Flag at their headquarters in Alimuddin Street, Kolkata, either for Republic Day or Independence Day, till 2021.
Perhaps the fact that they have lost power in Tripura and West Bengal humbled them somewhat. And besides, the successor TMC government apparently respects the National Flag. It is perhaps a small concession to the times.
The writer is a Delhi-based commentator on political and economic affairs. The views expressed are personal.
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