October 27, 1997  
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West Bengal
Angry Old Man

Jyoti Basu uses the CPI(M)'s organisational elections to renew his assault on ideological hardliners who kept him from the prime minister's chair.

By Udayan Namboodiri

Jyoti BasuEven a lion in winter seeks fresh prey. Jyoti Basu, aged 83 and chief minister of West Bengal since 1977, finds himself in the thick of a factional feud the likes of which his CPI(M) has never seen. Seventeen months ago, Basu was set to become prime minister of the first United Front (UF) government. His coronation was thwarted by theory-obsessed comrades. They pointed to the obscure clause 112 in the party's programme, which forbid it joining any Central coalition in which it did not have a majority.

It still rankles. Basu's first salvo came in January, when he referred to the decision not to join the UF government as a "historic blunder". Sitaram Ye-chury, politburo member, tried to dismiss the issue as a "closed chapter". Now, what began as a debate on the nuances of political action has become a gigantic street brawl between Basu's loyalists and the pedantic old guard.

Basu's intention, say his close associates, is to take the CPI(M) beyond its present confinement to West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura. He blames its inability to grow nationally on the fossilised apparatchiki who dominate the party structure and frame its programmes. The battle is not going to be easy. Says a former party MP who is close to Basu: "It would entail comprehensive changes at all levels. Basu realises he will need personalities interested in change whereas those controlling the party now have a vested interest in keeping it small." Little wonder Basu has been calling for "more democracy" in the party.

Basu's aim is to pack the all-powerful Politburo and Central Committee with practical politicians. The politburo is currently controlled by Yechury and Prakash Karat -- sometimes disparaged as drawing-room leaders and said to be backed by E.M.S. Namboodiripad, the former party general secretary. Says a former party MP: "The Yechury-Karat group wants to ensure the invitee list to the party's Calcutta congress (scheduled for February 1998) is dominated by those preferring the status quo."

Only those partymen elected to the State Committee can attend the party congress. The State Committee is in the grip of Anil Biswas, editor of Ganashakti, the party's Bengali daily. A divide between his supporters and those who seek change is now visible. Subhash Chakraborty, the transport minister, is emerging as Basu's demolition man.

Elections to the party's two lowest rungs -- "branch" and "local" -- largely concluded in early October. They were marked by dissent and hostility. When Biman Bose, Central Committee member, issued strictures against canvassing or going to the press with "news about internal affairs", he was defied. To add fuel to the fire, on two occasions in the past month Basu termed his party's leadership "corrupt". He found an unwitting supporter in Ashok Mitra, former state finance minister and now Rajya Sabha member. Mitra recently attacked party functionaries, charging that "they have forgotten about ideology and help themselves to government funds for holding party conferences".

The theoreticians hit back by sabotaging Basu's attempt to clear Calcutta's streets of hawkers. Biswas, despite holding no government office, asked the hawkers to return to their illegal markets. Buddhadev Bhattacharya, police minister and Basu's heir apparent, responded by calling in the riot-control Rapid Action Force.

Factionalism was apparent in the local party conferences. One meeting in Behala, a suburb of Calcutta, resulted in Ashis Chatterjee, the district committee overseer, being shot at -- apparently in error. The most troubled district was North 24 Parganas, Chakraborty's battleground which neighbours the capital. Links with the real-estate mafia and influence over contractors divided comrades as much as the future of clause 112. Admits a leader: "Money was freely used to win support."

Plainly, the theoreticians had it coming. In the perception of a new generation of CPI(M) leaders -- aside from Chakraborty, it includes Housing Minister Gautam Deb and Health Minister Partho Dey -- the party is controlled by ivory-tower dwellers. They rarely contest elections, keep away from the hurly burly of politics and, to quote one minister, "live off the cream". Yet, it is they who run the party -- and ask ministers, including Basu, to explain the Government's conduct. Says Chakraborty: "The vast majority of West Bengal leaders are upset at the fossilised thinking that dominates the party."

Party elections had thus far been staid affairs. There was no real exercise of choice, with delegates to branch, local, zonal and district conferences meekly validating "panels" proposed by outgoing committees. This time, Biswas admits, direct elections were held at 90 per cent of the branch and local conferences.

Anticipating this, the incumbent leadership had framed a rule whereby any "palta" (opposing) panel could be made public only 15 minutes before the voting. This gave the anti-establishment forces little time to campaign. There were allegations of "rigging" in some units, including one in Calcutta, where rival groups "guarded" ballot papers before the voting. Biswas denies tales of indiscipline: "All these are fabrications. People are feeding all kinds of stories." Yet, democracy seems to have finally contaminated the CPI(M).

To many, it is clear that Basu is the patron saint of this rebellion. For one, he continues to back Nepaldeb Bhattacharya, the trade unionist who was suspended by the North 24 Parganas unit of the party. Also, Basu has not stopped Chak-raborty and Buddhadev Bhattacharya from patronising their factions. "We have never seen him in this kind of role," says a senior party leader, "in the past he distanced himself from internal matters and was even accused of siding with the demagogues. Now he is using the 'historic blunder' issue to stimulate a questioning spirit in the party."

Even so, Basu may not be able to substantially alter the composition of the next Central Committee. Though Biswas sUFfered a setback in his native Nadia district -- where a majority of his supporters lost -- most local committees statewide elected hardline panels. Zonal, district and state committees should do likewise. Biswas may even find himself a place in the Politburo as a reward for keeping the theoreticians in the saddle.

Biswas, in his early '50s, is a classic example of a theoretician. He runs Ganashakti from a seven-storeyed building which can claim to be among India's most ostentatious newspaper offices. Though cleared by the party of allegations of personal corruption, Biswas' gathering money for the paper has raised questions. Together with Bose, he presided over a "suddhikaran" (purification), which concluded in July and purged the CPI(M) of 12,799 full-time workers and 678 others. The purge was not entirely successful:

  • Supporters of the suspended Lakshmi De won the local committee election in central Calcutta.
  • Nepaldeb Bhattacharya, expelled for mysterious "links with the enemy", remained a factor in the polls in North 24 Parganas.

In the mid '60s, an ageing Mao Zedong asked supporters to "bombard the headquarters" of the Communist Party of China. This was Mao's war against what he considered a degenerate leadership; this was the Cultural Revolution. In contrast, Basu's is still a cultural mutiny -- but if it succeeds, it may change West Bengal forever.

 

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