With renewed resolve

Print edition : September 30, 2000

Chief Minister Jyoti Basu removes all uncertainty about his continuance in the leadership of the Left Front in West Bengal and warns the Centre against any move to dislodge his government.

HAVING put the issue of retirement behind him, Jyoti Basu, the country's longest-serving Chief Minister, has taken a firmer grip of the reins of power in West Bengal with a renewed resolve. "I am close to 90 but I must try to serve you as long as I can," Basu told a cheering gathering at Santiniketan while opening a cultural complex on September 15.

Chief Minister Jyoti Basu and Deputy Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya at a rally of the Democratic Youth Federation of India in Calcutta on September 12.-SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

The announcement, which came just two days after he had cautioned partymen at a huge rally in Calcutta against the Centre's attempt to impose President's Rule on the State, signals the 87-year-old Marxist veteran's resolve to lead the ruling Left Front's campaign for the Assembly elections early next year. Basu, who has served as Chief Minister for 24 years, had expressed his desire to retire in September, but was persuaded to stay on in power by Harkishan Singh Surjeet, general secretary of the Communi st Party of India (Marxist). He is now all set to lead the battle against Trinamul Congress chief and Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee and, by extension the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the Centre, of which the Trinamul Congress is a constituent. Raising a hue and cry over what she described as the breakdown of law and order in the State and "state-sponsored terrorism" in certain pockets of Midnapore and Bankura districts, Mamata Banerjee has been demanding imposition of President's Rule in West Bengal. She has threatened that she will pull out of the Union Cabinet unless the Centre punishes the Left Front government. She has suggested designating the "violence-scarred" areas as "disturbed" in case President's Rule cannot be imposed for some reason.

Jyoti Basu had not shown any sign of his present combativeness until the NDA sent a team of "observers" for an on-the-spot study of the situation in Midnapore district. Then came the visit of Defence Minister George Fernandes in early September and Union Home Minister L.K. Advani's letter to the West Bengal government seeking its explanation for the comments made by Fernandes."I have gone through the Centre's observations, all inaccurate," Basu said, dismissing the Defence Minister's comments as "untrut hs".

Fernandes did not recommend President's Rule but gave a grim report on West Bengal's law and order situation, comparing it with that in Bihar. Countering Basu's allegation that he visited West Bengal under pressure from Mamata Banerjee and that he had no t bothered to check the facts with either the Chief Minister or other representatives of the State, Fernandes said he went to West Bengal on instructions from the Prime Minister and prepared a report based on what he saw and heard from the people. He com mented in the report that the entire constitutional structure seemed to be crumbling in West Bengal. He, however, recalled that the ruling coalition at the Centre had once before burnt its fingers in Bihar. "Our experience of imposing President's Rule in Bihar was not happy. We do not want the experience repeated," Fernandes said. That means the government would not venture to invoke Article 356 in West Bengal without the Congress(I)'s support. The dismissal of a State government would require the appro val of both Houses of Parliament, and as things stand, the NDA, which does not have a majority in the Rajya Sabha, must win the Congress(I)'s support for the move to succeed.

An alternative is to declare Midnapore and Bankura districts as "disturbed", under the Disturbed Areas Act. The Centre would have to amend the law in order to do so and that can be done through an ordinance. "The government has options, but these have to be weighed and deliberated before the Centre can come to any conclusion," Fernandes said.

Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee outside the Raj Bhavan in Calcutta on September 11 before she met Governor Viren J. Shah and demanded action against the Left Front government.-SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

Jyoti Basu, who dismissed the Defence Minister's report as "ridiculous", challenged the Centre to clamp President's Rule on the State, and declared that "no one can dislodge us from power since we have been working for the people". A measure of how comba tive Basu is can be had from the stance he adopted at the public meeting in Calcutta. "We must warn them (the Centre and Mamata Banerjee) that people will give them a fitting reply if they try to dislodge our government by adopting unfair and unethical m eans," he thundered.

Dismissing Advani's letter as containing nothing except a "threat to intervene", Basu said he would not bow to pressure as the situation did not merit Central intervention. "I have gone through Advani's lengthy letter, which wanted to know more about pol itical violence taking place in the State. I want to make it clear that political clashes are limited to only three police station areas out of 47 in Midnapore district and everything is under control there," he said in his reply to Advani's letter. In t he 10-page letter faxed to Basu, Advani had indicated that the State was not fulfilling its constitutional responsibilities "effectively and convincingly".

Deputy Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya told Frontline that the State had received seven letters from the Home Ministry since April, and all of them had been answered. He said that the letters were largely vague. While some of them sought det ails about Midnapore and Bankura, others sought information on different districts. "Their information is incomplete. We have doubts about their claims and are suspicious about their news sources. The Defence Minister did not bother to talk to senior dis trict officials. He was taken on a tour of certain pockets so that he got biased views," Bhattacharya said.

Sources in the Trinamul Congress said that hours before Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee's return to New Delhi on September 19 from his visit to the United States, Mamata Banerjee had made another appeal to Advani to invoke Article 356 or promulgate the Dist urbed Areas Act in West Bengal. However, informed sources said that the NDA government, well aware of the political and technical pitfalls of imposing President's Rule, was against taking any "extreme step". The latest report of Governor Viren J. Shah to the Home Ministry only added to the government's problems. While the report talks about what it called the "deteriorating law and order" situation in certain districts, it does not say anything about a constitutional crisis in the State. So the main eff ort of the Vajpayee government now is to find a face-saver for the Trinamul Congress chief.

It is not difficult to understand why Mamata Banerjee is repeatedly calling for Central intervention in West Bengal, particularly when she is aware of the fact that most constituents of the NDA are in principle against the use of Article 356. In their re asoning, Mamata Banerjee seems to be working on two basic planks in talking about the twin issues of the law and order situation in West Bengal and any Central action relating to that. First, they feel that with the Assembly elections approaching, she is trying to whip up an anti-CPI(M) atmosphere and fill the anti-Left space, galvanise her army of supporters into combat mode well in time for the elections, and project herself as an alternative to Jyoti Basu. She was encouraged in this by her party's su ccess in the last civic polls and its victory in the Lok Sabha byelection from Panskura. Secondly, according to Left leaders, by repeatedly calling for Central intervention, Mamata Banerjee is also trying to keep open her option of deserting the NDA and reaching out to the Muslim electorate, which influences nearly one-third of the Assembly segments. In trying to magnify the law and order situation she is essentially trying to sidetrack uncomfortable questions about the economic policies of the NDA gove rnment, of which her party is a part. She is silent when questions relating to disinvestment, unemployment, price rise or the closure of public sector units in the State are raised. Mamata Banerjee's current moves are geared towards changing the politica l matrix with the help of the Congress(I), which she loves to ridicule in public. No matter how hard she tries to give the West Bengal Congress(I) a bloody nose, she realises that she can hope to win the next elections only if she has as an ally the Cong ress(I), which controls the bulk of minority votes. With the BJP in the State ending up at the bottom of the electoral scoreboards, Mamata's need for the party is diminishing.

Mamata Banerjee's persistent demand for the dismissal of the Jyoti Basu Government is said to have come as a blessing in disguise for the Left Front. A high-level meeting of the Left parties held in Delhi on September 14 underlined the need to remove the ir internal differences and unitedly face the electorate.

A joint statement released after the meeting warned the BJP-led government against trying to dislodge the Jyoti Basu government. Describing any move in that direction as "grossly illegal" and intended to appease Mamata Banerjee, the statement said that " the Left parties wish to warn the Vajpayee government against indulging in any such steps as the use of Article 356 or invoking the Disturbed Areas Act." The statement added that it only exposed "the petty politicking and opportunist concerns which domin ate" the NDA coalition. In the Left leaders' perception, Mamata Banerjee now has little option but to climb down in her campaign against the Basu government.

Meanwhile, the CPI(M) has laid emphasis on revitalising its front organisations in the rural areas to counter the Trinamul Congress-BJP campaign. Anil Biswas, Polit Buro member and secretary of the State unit of the CPI(M), told Frontline that the party had asked its front organisations to get their act together within the next two months. The district committees had been asked to activate their members and allocate responsibility to each. The party, Biswas said, was also conducting a detailed an alysis of its strengths and weaknesses, constituency-wise.

"The unity of the Left forces is the crux of our sustenance all these years. In the future too, we would stress on the unity of the Left Front. We will not only hold joint party programmes, but also conduct bilateral talks from the State to the block lev el with all our Left partners in order to do away with misunderstandings and strengthen our unity against forces that are trying to destabilise us," Left Front chairman Sailen Dasgupta said.

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