Saturday, June 6, 2009

When ignorance is bliss


CHIEF minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee is in the firing line, the salvos coming from the most unexpected quarters ~ bare-bodied, hungry, homeless victims of cyclone Aila. For the first time in his chief ministerial career, he has been subjected to harsh barracking, open defiance and near assault, with one aggrieved villagers madly tugging at the sleeves of his panjabi.
When he faced mob fury on an earlier occasion, his car was hit with lathis at Park Circus weilded by protesters angry over the death of Rizwanur Rehman as a result of a police-businessman-politician-criminal nexus. What was planned to be a huge public relations exercise and a last-ditch attempt by Bhattacharjee to save the Red regime from collapse in the next two years, when the assembly elections are due, turned out to be a colossal miscalculation. Or, rather, it was a calculated gamble and Bhattacharjee and other Alimuddin Street mandarins were aware of the risks involved but couldn’t gauge the intensity of the furious protests the chief minister could face.
The language employed by the protesters was in stark contrast to the sort Bhattacharjee is accustomed to, both as an arrogant chief minister and a man of culture surrounded by likeminded acolytes who actually come across as vultures feasting on the privileges that association with the powers-that-be accord. The reception hapless cyclone victims gave Bhattacharjee also underscored the fact that the chief minister was blissfully ignorant of the corruption of his party functionaries and the stupor that his administration has been in over the years.
That’s only natural as he moved around different parts of the state cocooned in a security cover and other trappings of power, conversing with a posse of cringing officers, not caring a fig for the hoi poloi. Such was the extent of his self-delusion that when, only 48 hours before the Lok Sabha poll it was pointed out to him that his principal adversary ~ the Trinamul Congress ~ had virtually hijacked some of his party’s pet policies geared to benefit the rural poor, he sneered that the reporter had no knowledge of the state’s people and that he hadn’t been outside his office to collect facts for his reportage!
Now the starving and homeless cyclone victims are asking where he has been all these years and how much he knows about them! These are legitimate questions since he saw only what his party satraps and the bureaucracy dinned into his ears. The victims have reason to be angry with Bhattacharjee for suddenly deciding to become their next-door neighbour, and this, too, when the Left Front was voted against overwhelmingly in the Lok Sabha elections, portraying the drafting of the Red regime’s obituary.
Stumbling is not alien to Bhattacharjee. An earlier occasion is still fresh in the public memory: he just stepped into Jyoti Basu’s shoes in 2001 and the CPI(M) desperately needed to refurbish its image. Bhattacharjee fit the bill for his Mr Clean image. If Basu had became sedentary, Bhattacharjee sought to prove he was mobile and energetic, so he rushed to a remote village in South 24-Parganas and travelled in a cycle-van to visit people robbed in a series of daring dacoities. His visit became the talk of the town but he complained to this reporter in an interview that the people had forgotten he had been the first among politicians to reach flood victims with relief way back in 1978! So by Bhattacharjee’s own admission, this is the third time he has been in direct contact with people in distress. But three is not always an auspicious number ~ a supersitition he won’t, of course, harbour.
To be fair, the chief minister made the right move, thoughly hugely belated, but the timing was wrong. And timing can never be right, however much he tries, since the cancer in the CPI(M) has spread beyond any hope of redemption. The only way he could try to save his party from being washed out in the next assembly elections due in 2011 is to go directly to the people in the villages, apologise for the plan of taking away their land to set up industries and seek their suggestions on how to develop the state.
His bete noire, Miss Mamata Banerjee, managed to win the hearts of the rural people not by conjuring up grand schemes for the state’s economic turnaround but by simply being with them in their hour of dire distress. She successfully exploited the common man’s love to see politicians dressed in simple attire being with them whenever needed. This is the only course left for Bhattacharjee to adopt in order to prevent his party from being thrown out of power. He has to undertake this Herculean task himself since his aggressive advocacy of the grossly flawed industrialisation policy and highly offensive utterances denigrating the opposition and his detractors have brought about the Marxists’ debacle in only three years since the Left Front won 235 of the 294 Assembly seats.
Even then, this course may not be enough. However hypocritical it sounds, the chief minister has all these years spent most of his time in the airconditioned comfort of his office in the Writers’ Buildings, his favourite haunt at Nandan and, of course, the party state headquarters in Alimuddin Street. If he now steps out of such a zone so far removed from the world of the common man and tries to convince the rural poor that he is one of them, it would be straining credulity rather too much. When he did so at a time when Aila had ruined their lives, Bhattacharjee should have realised he could only hope to reap the whirlwind.
The author is Special Representative,
The Statesman, Kolkata.

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