`The farmer's success is our strength'

Print edition : June 18, 2004

Interview with West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front in West Bengal runs one of the longest serving governments in the history of parliamentary politics, having won all the six Assembly elections since 1977. In the Lok Sabha elections since 1977, when the Left won 23 of the 42 seats in the State, the coalition has gone from strength to strength. In the just concluded elections, the Left Front won 35 seats, up from 29 in 1999.

SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

With a powerful presence at the Centre now, the Left parties, which have always opposed communalism and the neo-liberal economic policies of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance and the previous Congress government, can now hope to influence policy-making and give it a pro-people orientation. In an exclusive interview, West Bengal Chief Minister and party Polit Bureau member Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee spoke to Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay about the tasks ahead for the Left and the importance of supporting the United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre. Excerpts:

How do you view the fact that the anti-incumbency sentiment has not worked against the ruling Left Front in West Bengal? In fact, the Left Front has added 6 more Lok Sabh seats to its tally. What does this signify?

Many foreign political observers are asking the same question. The point is that every time there is an election - Assembly or parliamentary - we also face the anti-incumbency factor: there is scarcity of drinking water, many villages in our State are not yet electrified and then there is the problem of maintenance of roads. But in spite of that we could withstand anti-incumbency sentiments working against us because of our basic success in implementing radical land reform programmes and our success in stepping up agricultural production. The landless poor, including small and marginal farmers and sharecroppers who benefited from our reforms, constitute 94 per cent of our farmers, and till 70 per cent of the cultivable land in the State. The success of the farmers is our strength. I can humbly claim our rural sector is the most organised if you compare it to any other State. For that reason we could withstand the anti-incumbency factor.

The main issues in this election were mainly national issues - Whether India would stay secular or not. In our State the BJP has very few followers and the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] and its other outfits are not that powerful, and the people of the State could understand the danger of the BJP coming back to power, which would destroy the secular structure of this country. The whole of India would then become another Gujarat. That the people of West Bengal did not like this to happen is one reason why we have got more seats this time. Another reason is that Vajpayee's propaganda of `India Shining' boomeranged on them. Last but not the least, with 70 per cent of the population of the State living in the rural areas, our success there paid off. The Left's margin of victory in the rural constituencies has grown tremendously.

Its also important to note that we have won back a lot of urban seats - Kolkata Northeast, Kolkata Northwest, Jadavpur, Dumdum, Diamond Harbour and others - which had gone to the Opposition earlier.

Does this mean that the Left has finally managed to win over the urban voters in West Bengal?

The composition of urban voters is not homogeneous. This time we could send a message to traders and corporate houses that we are an investment-friendly government. The urban middleclass realised that they could not depend on the Opposition. To them stability in the State is of paramount importance. Most importantly, this time the urban poor voted for us. Earlier, a section of the urban poor had left us to support the [Nationalist] Trinamul Congress; that was very unfortunate, because we represent this section. We have to carry on with the task of eradicating unemployment and poverty in the urban and semi-urban areas.

The mindset of the urban voters towards the Left seems to have changed, especially in the last few years since you assumed the post of Chief Minister. The Bengali `bhadralok' wants to vote for a Left Front led by Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. Your comments.

I don't think so. It is not a question of `I'. It is a question of `we'. I cannot claim that it is because of me that the urban voters started leaning to the Left. It was a collective effort and our Front could capture the imagination of the urban voters.

Will the economic policies that have succeeded in West Bengal over the last 30 years be incorporated into the Central government's programmes?

Everybody knows the differences between our party's programmes and the Congress' economic policies. We differ on some basic issues also, no doubt. But we are trying to come to a consensus. We are against ruthless disinvestment. Manmohan Singh himself has spoken of reforms with a human face. Public undertakings, unemployment, rural economy are all very important issues for us. Manmohan Singh has praised us highly for our success in agriculture and land reforms. I do not think there will be 100 per cent consensus, but we have to find out a way to work together.

In spite of the fact that the Left has not always seen eye to eye with the Congress on economic policies?

The Congress will also have to do some introspection and find out why their earlier programmes alienated them [from the people]. They have to learn from their past mistakes. We also have to act responsibly and not create a situation that would hamper the stability of this government. We have to keep in mind that the basic condition of supporting this government is to keep the BJP out of power. That is the most important thing.

How optimistic are you about the prospects of the new coalition at the Centre?

We will never allow the BJP to come back to power again, and we will try our best to mobilise all our forces for the stability of this government. The real problem of the country is whether India will stay secular or not; whether the RSS will march forward and the fascist forces will destroy our democracy and secularism. We will have to see to it that they cannot create any problem for this government. On this aspect we sincerely support this government, so that the BJP cannot take any advantage of our differences in economic perception and policies.

The CPI(M) Polit Bureau meeting in Kolkata on May 25 decided to make Somnath Chatterjee the Speaker of the Lok Sabha. Why not participate in the government?

Our's is a `symbolic participation'. We want to send the message that we are very much with the United Progressive Alliance. But after discussing at the Central Committee the major issue of whether we should join the government or not, we finally decided not to join. You know we have some differences, basically on economic issues, and so we cannot be a part of the government and would instead support it from outside. But we responded to their request of having the Speaker from our party, and we decided that Somnathda should take over. We are also in the process of developing a mechanism to enable us to monitor the government functioning from outside.

There is hardly any political opposition to the Left Front government in West Bengal today. Do you see a further disintegration of the Opposition with the Left Front getting stronger? Is the absence of a strong Opposition in the Assembly good for democracy?

In a democracy, there is a need for a responsible Opposition party. But things are not moving in that direction in our State. I'm sorry to say the Opposition did not play a responsible role in the last two to three years. All it did was create pandemonium in the Assembly. But I feel that a responsible Opposition is needed not only inside the Assembly but also outside to criticise government failures and also come up with constructive suggestions. That way we can improve our performance and further strengthen democracy.

How do you reconcile the fact that the Left and the Congress, allies at the Centre, are bitter political enemies in the State?

Our main reason to support the Congress at the national level was to remove the BJP from power. We also decided before the election that we will not compromise our position in places where we are strong, notably West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura. Just because we are supporting the Congress at the national level does not mean that we are going to allow it to make inroads into our strongholds. But in places where we have very little support or following we had no hesitation in telling people that they should support the Congress to ensure the defeat of the BJP. India is a very big country and therefore formulating tactical lines is not a simple thing. At the national level, there is one line, in States where the Left dominates, another, and in places where the Left is weak, yet another. It is not possible to adopt a straitjacket formula.

Considering the strategic position of West Bengal, you got a sympathetic response from former Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani when you spoke about the security concerns of the State. With the change of government at the Centre, what will be your approach?

Certainly. I think the Centre will continue to appreciate the gravity of the situation - the problem of terrorist outfits operating in different parts of the country and particularly in West Bengal. We have to fight them all over the country. In West Bengal there are three major issues that need to be addressed. First, Islamic fundamentalists backed by the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence] who are operating from Bangladesh. Another is the People's War Group [PWG], which is operating in certain pockets of Midnapore, Bankura and Purulia. They are taking advantage of the border we share with Jharkhand. When pursued they retreat into Jharkhand. A joint committee of the States concerned was formed to combat this. And as far as the KLO [Kamtapur Liberation Organisation] problem is concerned, after being driven out of Bhutan they have not been able to regroup. But we are still keeping a close watch.

Another aspect that should not be ignored is that we have to speed up socio-economic programmes for rural uplift in these affected areas. Although the majority of the people in these areas support the Left Front, a section comprising mainly young people have been alienated. We have to win over their confidence. I appealed to the KLO youth to give up arms and come back into the mainstream when the crackdown in Bhutan was taking place. That offer still stands.

In tribal dominated areas, where the PWG is active, we have already speeded up some development programmes in the irrigation and health sectors. We are encouraging new forms of livelihood, drawing upon local resources such as Kendu leaves, saal leaves, sabui grass and so on. If we can help these people, then the PWG will not be able to strike roots in our State.

You have completed three years of your first term as Chief Minister. How do you look back on this period?

That the people will decide (smiles). But I am trying my best to consolidate our success in agriculture and the rural economy. I am trying to attract further investments into the State and new investments are coming in different sectors like iron and steel, chemicals, plastics, agro business and, of course, information technology. I am trying to improve the quality of education from the primary to the higher levels. We have developed a big network in our health service. We cater to 70 per cent of the population of the State. Perhaps no other State has taken up so much responsibility in this sector.

But we have to improve health administration and hospital infrastructure. I try to motivate our employees to be punctual and to perform. How far I have succeeded people will judge. Nobody can be his own judge (smiles).

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