During a press briefing in May 2006, CPI(M) state secretary Biman Bose made a prophetic comment. While speaking on the role of media which was then projecting chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee as the poster boy of reforms, Bose remarked bluntly: “The media has taken the Brand Buddha line. But it can spell trouble for him.” (Source) The outspoken CPI(M) state secretary was expressing his worry that the same media which is making a superhero out of him, was equally capable of abruptly changing color, chameleon-like, and start smearing the chief minister’s image. Biman Bose’s comment came at a time when the political influence and reputation of Buddhadeb was at its peak. He had just won the 2006 state assembly elections with a colossal majority and was hailed as a new-age leader, a “capitalist communist” who was expected to steer Bengal to glory. The industrial lobby, the neo-liberal media and large sections of the urban middle class was praising him animatedly for his single-point industrialization agenda. He was been credited for bringing back hope to a state marred by “despair”. Neo-liberalism advocate The Economist went gaga to extol him for his “reputation for probity,” for being “modest and engaging” on topics from agri-business to consumerism and Indian poetry. From Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Azim Premji of Wipro, many big-shots were lauding him as India’s best chief minister. Unfortunately for him, it took just a year after the famous victory for the Brand Buddha bubble to burst. Within a couple of years the monolithic edifice of the CPI(M) came tumbling down when the people of Bengal delivered a real kick in the teeth to sweep out the Left Front from thirty-four long years of uninterrupted power.
Buddhadeb’s rise within the party was straight and trouble-free. Active in politics from his Presidency College days, he joined the undivided Communist Party of India (CPI) as a primary member in 1966. Always a disciplined partyman, he was spotted early by the party state secretary Pramod Dasgupta as a future leader and was soon elected as state secretary of the Democratic Youth Federation (DYF) – the party’s youth wing. The party groomed young Buddhadeb and subsequently co-opted him for parliamentary politics. He became the information and culture minister of the first Left Front government in 1977. Except between 1982-87 when he lost the assembly polls and in 1993 when he resigned from the Cabinet after being scolded by his leader Jyoti Basu for being rude with a bureaucrat, Buddhadeb continued as a minister for a large part of the Left’s rule. In 2000, he emerged from the shadows of his predecessor, who retired for health reasons and took the charge of Bengal as chief minister.
In the eyes of the middle class party circles of the powerful Kolkata District Committee, Buddhadeb was always special for his intellectual sophistication which he had earned by his access to high culture. His opinions regarding art and culture, especially on what existed outside the Left cultural cliché was considered to be the last word for the top CPI(M) leadership in Bengal. Though he was in some way the party’s real commissar of culture, surprisingly enough, he was never found to be directly dictating terms to the Cultural Front of his party; possibly considering it much lower to his taste and dignity. Cultural front leaders were known to be critical in private about Buddhadeb’s snobbish views that had distinguished him from his comrades. They were particularly uneasy about his reproachful attitude towards the agit-prop programs undertaken by them. Buddhadeb, for them, was too much of an egoist, someone who felt immense pleasure about his elitism. However, as workers of a regimented party, they would obey and acclaim him in public as a leader of high cultural and moral ideals and values.
The media manufactured “cultured” image of Buddhadeb, his honesty and austere dwelling had initially enthralled the middle class Bengalis. Is he not a politician quite unique among the stereotype Indian counterparts – they used to argue. But this artificial image did not last for long or brought him any help when he needed it most. Steps taken by the Marxist turned reformist chief minister was ringing like alarm bells in the ears of the Leftist old guards. He had never worked closely among the peasant and workers, did not come to the party through peasant and labor movements and therefore never really understood them. From an urban middle class understanding and outlook he arrogantly went on rubbishing the concerns and cautions sounded from the grassroots.
Stuck with the appearance, he tried to authorize the media created “capitalist communist” image expressing his dislike for bandhs (general strike) – a customary form of protest used by the Leftists. “Unfortunately, I belong to a political party that calls for bandhs. I have kept quiet. But, from now on, I’ll not keep quiet,” he had bravely said to a gathering of industrialists. It was indeed shocking to see him getting carried away by the sly media strategy that had credited him entirely for the Left Front’s huge electoral victory. Who knew better than Buddhadeb that the achievement, though steered by him, would have remained unfeasible without the assiduous work done at the local level by numerous dedicated party functionaries. Sadly enough, instead of brushing aside this phony hero worship, Buddhadeb started to believe in the brand himself.
His basic ideas on development were apparently faultless. There was nothing wrong to focus on industrialization as the key to economic growth. After the massive election victory, it was also not in the wrong to launch a rapid industrialization drive. The newly elected government under Buddhadeb’s stewardship envisioned that if they have not gone on that particular path by taking advantage of the current neo-liberal economic milieu of the country, it would have been like betraying the people who had voted them back to power.
We must not forget that it was during the Left regime when Bengal had achieved a considerable success in agricultural production. The land redistribution program that had empowered sharecroppers throughout Bengal along with the three-tier Panchayat System that had decentralized power at the grass root level through the democratic institutions of local self-governments has remained the Left’s prime area of success which in return has ensured their uninterrupted stint in power. It is incredible to think that Buddhadeb and the CPI(M) did not take this background into consideration while launching the massive industrial program.
The sequence of events unfolded over time clearly shows that the aggressive industrialization drive had proceeded with too much of unnecessary haste which could have been done with more time, patience and care. Instead of involving the stakeholders in the process, the government preferred to keep them in dark. Due to some strange reason, Buddhadeb and his team used a pliant administration to apply force on the people to give their dear land. Many of them were poor peasants, those who had formed the backbone of his party. Critical policy decisions concerning people’s life and livelihood were taken at the top, coldly dictated and mindlessly implemented without thinking deeply that if the outcome of their decisions went against them what would be the alternative policy to check it. Buddhadeb also ignored the fact that he is not a mass leader with a stature of Jyoti Basu but a leader appointed by the party and substantiated by the corporate media. Quite surprisingly he could not even recognize that those who are making a hero out of him are actually not his friends.
Another graver mistake was to take the tenacious Mamata Banerjee too lightly. In the initial days after the 2006 landslide win Buddhadeb became a ridiculously haughty man. He forgot that in a democracy one cannot underestimate the opponents – even if they apparently look toothless and stale. Under a favorable environment, the puny opposition will grow leafy in no time. And when it starts happening, the sprouting cannot be resisted by simply calling the phenomenon a nuisance. However, we cannot blame Buddhadeb alone for this blunder. His party, the CPI(M) is equally responsible for it. What was the CPI(M) leadership doing when the opposition was gaining strength after strength from Buddhadeb and his government’s reckless experiments? Nothing much, because the 2006 landslide wins had silenced them all. The leadership had no other option but to allow the too expensive experiments to continue on a grand scale even after Mamata Banerjee started targeting their core constituency and successfully incited the people against them.
The success of the Left Front government’s industrial policy depended primarily on an extremely sensitive factor – land acquisition. To ensure its success, the primary task of the government was to insightfully pay attention to the expectations of the people who were deeply attached with their land. The events of Singur has clearly pointed out that the major failure of the government was its inability to gain trust from the poor and marginal farmers, whose livelihood depended directly on the land the government had decided to acquire. Instead of going to the villages and discussing the matter of setting up industry with the people, the government relied more on highhanded bureaucratic methods. Buddhadeb, who had once proudly claimed not to operate out of the state secretariat Writers' Buildings, disregarded even the mass front organizations of his own party and their close to the earth leaders. Their wisdom and apprehensions were just brushed aside. In due course, the government, the Left Front and a regimented party like the CPI(M) lost touch with a good section of their own people. The situation came as a godsend to the opposition who merrily started to exploit the doubts, anxieties and grievances brimming in the minds of the effected people.
A large number of the effected peasants couldn’t make out the value of industrialization, how it would bring prosperity to their lives and will ensure a better future for their children. Brand Buddha miserably failed to explain them the differences between land acquisition and land grab. True, Buddhadeb and his team had tried to communicate their vision, to make the masses aware about the benefits of their policy. But their tone of discourse was mechanical and callous, entirely inappropriate for a compassionate pro-poor government.
During the 2006 Assembly elections, Left Front had raised the slogan: Agriculture is our base, Industry is our future. We still think that the slogan was correct. But the deeds failed to match the lofty words. Oversimplifying the electoral results as an automatic mandate for industrialization, Buddhadeb and his team misjudged the objective ground realities of Bengal. The mistakes committed in Singur got amplified a hundred times or more during and after the events of Nandigram. To consider Nandigram as the logical continuation of Singur will be wrong – it was much more complex, and certainly devious in nature. However, after the fatal police shooting that had killed fourteen individuals, the concealed anger against the chief minister, his government and party busted out in open.
Nandigram had also exposed Buddhadeb’s terrible weakness as an administrator, his lack of leadership skill. After the Nandigram fiasco Buddhadeb’s administration lost all their strength and courage to counter the unyielding opposition led by a reincarnated Trinamool chieftain. For the first time in their long tenure the CPI(M) had to face a tough united opposition which also included prominent representatives of the Bengali intelligentsia and the civil society. Nandigram events have taught the Leftists a severe lesson – never take the people for granted. The events have also pulled them by their ears and taught them that losing touch with the people is synonymous to death for a Communist Party.
A section of opportunist intellectuals who used to pry around Buddhadeb just a few days ago and flattered him in public to prove their proximity, suddenly turned hostile. With the choicest phrases possible they started to curse him and the CPI(M). A bewildered Buddhadeb watched in utter dismay how some of his “close” intellectual pals, for whose behalf he had once disregarded many of his party comrades, have manifestly went against him. Yet it was those debarred party comrades, who have always failed to occupy a place in his larger imagination, solidly stood by his side. But whether Buddhadeb felt any comfort among them is a difficult question to answer.
The consistent erosion of the Left’s support base in the rural areas that had started since the 2008 panchayat elections reached its high point when Mamata Banerjee successfully chased away the Tatas from Singur. A helpless chief minister and his government just watched like a sitting duck how skillfully the rainbow opposition force took complete control of the situation. Titmice were seen kicking the elephant that had been stuck in mud. Men and women from different walks of life – from the ultra Left-ultra Right-Centrists, the poets-writers-artists-critics-dramatists-actors-singers-filmmakers, the historians-sociologists-anthropologists, the spiritualists-anarchists-existentialists-rationalists-socialists-social democrats, the Gandhians-Ambedkarites-Arya Samajis, the traders-middlemen-brokers-peddlers-touts-pimps, the rights activists-environmental activists-fact finders, the renegades-utopian dreamers-opportunists, the conspirators-manipulators-undercover and double agents, the time servers-self seekers-turncoats, everyone from everywhere jumped on the Mamata bandwagon to protest against Buddhadeb’s industrial policy. Taking advantage of the situation, the Maoists in the Jangalmahal area and the ethnic Gurkhas in Darjeeling raised their head to add more trouble for an already dejected administration.
The mainstream media which had conspicuously stood behind him and rained praises just a couple of years ago, penned editorials advising him not to “follow or react to policy parameters set down by New Delhi” and started putting on pressure to “act as the pace-setter in opening up new areas to foreign direct investment,” abruptly changed their course. And what a change it was! By that time, Buddhadeb’s brand value has hit a rock bottom. The Left’s legendary mass base has also started eroding from its core. Tasting blood, a cohesive, belligerent, and blatant campaign was initiated against the Left Front, particularly targeting the CPI(M). The unprecedented campaign eventually turned into a total bias in favor of the Trinamool chieftain. At every defeat of the Left Front in consecutive elections, the media gloated more and more with ruthless joy. Such was the beauty of the systemic propaganda that people have almost forgot that the Jangalmahal crisis started after the Maoists have tried to assassinate the chief minister and another central minister near Lalgarh.
After the 2009 general election results, Buddhadeb finally started to see the writings on the wall and made a last afford to recover his lost ground. The chief minister, who during the crisis moments of Singur and Nandigram had not once visited those areas, came out from the dark chambers of Writers' Buildings, from the company of his charmed circle of bureaucrats, and started traveling all over the state. As a desperate attempt, he visited the districts every weekend to communicate with the people. But it was all too late. He found that large sections of the masses have not only turned their faces away from him, but also from his party. Therefore when his government undertook several pro-people policies just before the 2011 assembly elections, it failed to make any impact. As an alternative, the people have started trusting the wily Mamata Banerjee and her treacherous gang. Why should they continue to keep faith on a regime that has turned so insensitive? Even those who had strong reservations about Mamata Banerjee’s style of politics ended up supporting her.
The 2011 assembly election debacle of the Left in Bengal is undoubtedly historic. It is not only an electoral setback but a political defeat as well. But is it the end of the road for the CPI(M)? Can we now objectively start terming it as “the death of the Left” and presume that the Left has become politically irrelevant in the country? Off course not. History will again create situations when the Left and the CPI(M) will rise like a phoenix from the ashes. The present rulers of the country are ensuring that the moment is not too far. Within a brief time, the poor and socially oppressed sections in Bengal will eventually realize that the Trinamool Congress is not their political party, the new “liberator of Bengal” Mamata Banerjee is not the leader on whom they can keep faith for a long time – even if she continues to carry on nourishing them with her populist Ma-Mati-Manush philosophy, presenting herself under the garb of the “real” Left.
Can the CPI(M) bounce back under Buddhadeb’s leadership? In the backdrop of the debacle, his strange attitude is making us skeptical. When leaders and workers of his party are brutally attacked and killed on a daily basis across the state by the Trinamool-Congress goons, when party legislators are physically assaulted, when party and union offices are ransacked, when party supporters are being evicted from their homes by force and extortion is going on a large scale, Buddhadeb is far away from the scene. He is never found walking beside the dedicated Left workers who are trying to consolidate and revive. Instead he is behaving like a crestfallen lad, abandoned by his parents. Once again Buddhadeb has found it safe to retreat into his private cocoon, completely disregarding countless ordinary Left workers – those who have believed and accepted him as their leader.
Since the May 2009 Lok Sabha elections where the CPI(M) suffered a major embarrassing setback, he has continuously skipped eight Politburo and several Central Committee meetings. What message does he want to convey by running away from the party’s highest policy making body? Is he signaling to do something similar to what he did in 1993 by tendering his resignation from the fourth Left Front government? Time and again he has proved his failure to grow-up from just a leader to a leader of the masses. We are therefore doubtful about seeing him rolling up his sleeves and fighting back again in near future.
Not even the greatest of his critics can criticize Buddhadeb’s personal integrity. No one can even think of charging him as corrupt. Inside the party circles not a single detractor can question his dedication to the party cause. His cultural sophistication is way beyond any shadow of a doubt. He is an ardent reader, a playwright and a first rate translator. He is certainly a person with a modern progressive mind who dreams for a better world. At the same time, he bears a typical Bengali urban middle-class psyche, mirroring the confusions of liberalism and orthodoxy. His inability to reach and understand the people he leaded and his failure in managing political contradictions has tragically trapped him in an endless battle within itself.
Time has come to tell in plain words that Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee is not the leader who can steer the Left Front and the CPI(M) in these difficult days.