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HVK Archives: Hammer and tongs

Hammer and tongs - The Telegraph (Calcutta)

Ashis Chakrabarti ()
16 November 1997

Title: Hammer and tongs
Author: Ashis Chakrabarti
Publication: The Telegraph (Calcutta)
Date: November 16, 1997

It was a spectacle residents of Nager Bazar in south Dum Dum will not easily forget. The mighty comrade Amitava Bose, the CPI(M)'s North 24 Parganas district secretary, was running through the street, his dhoti in disarray, chased by angry comrades in arms. His tormentors belonged to the party faction led by another local satrap and West Bengal's inimitable minister for sport, Subhas Chakraborty Bose had apparently angered Chakraborty and his group by abusing chief minister Jyoti Basu at a party meeting.
So when he came to attend the election to the South Dum Dum local committee of the party last month, they pounced on him, pulled at his dhoti and turned him out on the street.

About the same time, comrades of a local committee in Tollygunge broke chairs and tables during the party election.

But some partymen in Behala bettered their previous records in inner-party wranglings. They fired at two leaders of the Calcutta district committee in a bylane while elections to the Behala West zonal committee were on. The election had to be postponed on charges of false voting. There were 124 voters, but at the time of counting 126 ballot papers were found.

In fact, charges flew thick and fast from all over West Bengal - of violence, threats, false voting, use of money power and so on - the sort of things one witnessed during Assembly or general elections or sometimes, at Congress party elections. Actually, although the party constitution bars any form of canvassing or campaigning in scores of places supporters of local factions took positions on the streets outside election centres, sometimes blocking traffic. During some of the polls large police continge
ts kept guard outside the venues. "So at last our boys too have caught up with the Congress culture," quips a Marxist old timer, his tone tinged with bitterness and self censure, "ironically, it's started on this scale here in West Bengal, our strongest state unit and home of Jyoti Basu."

But he is not surprised. He knew, like most other partymen, that this was coming. And, the bitter. power struggle had to start in West Bengal. For Basu is at its centre.

It was not only Amitava Bose of North 24 Parganas who spoke openly against the chief minister. In dozens of local and zonal committee conferences Basu became the centre of heated debates. The performance of his government is not discussed at these conferences. The debates centre on Basu's line that the time has come for the party to join an anti-Congress and anti-BJP government at the Centre - the line that was defeated at the controversial central committee meeting last year which rejected the United F
ont's offer to Basu to be the Prime Minister. He later called the party decision a "historic blunder," causing sparks to fly again and forcing party general secretary Harkishen Singh Surjeet to declare it a "closed chapter".

It was easier said than done. Basu knew such debates did not close in communist parties that soon. He would not leave it at that Party insiders and others who have watched power struggles in the CPI(M) for decades agree that Basu himself had wanted the debate to continue. The party conferences came in handy. More so because this time they came on the eve of the 16th party congress in Calcutta in February. Now, therefore, was the right time with the central committee decision providing the backdrop and t
e coming party congress offering another testing ground.

Basu is no stranger to such battles in the party. At the second congress of the undivided Communist Party of India at Calcutta's Mohammed Ali Park in 1948, he was among the minority leaders who questioned the party's line. Basu argued that the party strategy then smacked of "Left adventurism." He and the late Bhupesh Gupta had to apologise in writing for criticising the line taken by the then party chief B.T. Ranadive. He led the fight against Left extremism once again against the group which later broke
away in the late 1960s to become Naxalites. Incidentally, after the central committee shot down the proposal to join the UF Government last year, an angry Basu remarked, "We've fought Left sectarianism in the party before and we'll have to fight it again."

Nearly half a century later he is in the middle of yet another fight. According to CPI(M) sources, he has begun the battle at home - against the mandarins of Alimuddin Street - for two reasons. First, he is still sore that the Alimuddin apparatchik, led by Anil Biswas and Biman Bose, aligned with the Prakash Karat-Sitaram Yechuri group of the politburo to scuttle his chance of becoming the Prime Minister. Secondly, Basu is said to be genuinely concerned at the way the Alimuddin group has tightened its gr
p over the party in West Bengal.

So, when the elections came this time, Basu sent the signal, through men like Subhas Chakraborty, Buddhadev Bhattacharyya and Gautam Dev, that official panels should not be imposed and that free voting should be allowed if the outgoing committees failed to reach a consensus on the new ones. A relatively freer election has brought in dissenters and critics of the caucus that runs the party in Bengal. But the impact of these elections will be felt beyond the confines of the state party headquarters at Alim
ddin Street. If the number of Basu's supporters in the state committee increases, it will strengthen him in the politburo and the central committee. For the state committee sends members to the central committee, of which the politburo is a part. "Even if the Alimuddin group retains its hold over the state committee," says a prominent member of the Calcutta district committee, "the presence of a larger number of dissenters will keep it in. cheek." Hence the intense factional rivalry and voting in a lar
e number of branch, local and zonal committee elections this time. So far elections in the CPI(M), like in most communist parties, were all stagemanaged affairs. Although the party constitution allows voting, so far the ruling cliques would always get their panels elected unopposed.

"It's all a propaganda by the bourgeois Press to malign our party," Biman Bose has said. According to him, voting has always been there in party elections since 1978. Factions have always been there and the Salkia plenum of that year warned against growing factionalism in the party. The warning was repeated at the last party congress in Chandigarh, with special reference to West Bengal. But 20 years in the government have only worsened the situation, as leaders created separate centres of power around th
m. The ugly bickerings and open fights this time have brought it to the fore like never before. The battle over the Basu line has only given it an immediate issue.

"But you don't fight over an ideological issue with bombs and pistols," says a former member of the Calcutta district committee. The fact clearly is that "so much in the party is rotten." In most conferences of branch, local and zonal committees, the air was thick with charges and countercharges of corruption, nepotism and leaders' nexus with criminals and moneybags, especially promoters. In fact, the debate over the ideological line has often played second fiddle to mudslinging and personal vilification.
"At the local level, everyone knows everyone else," says the Calcutta committee member, "so it is mostly personal at the elections."

Two recent issues have also testified to the party leadership's concern over growing corruption at different levels of partymen. Earlier this year, at the behest of the central committee the West Bengal leadership asked ministers and party legislators to furnish details of their and their relatives' income. Very few have complied with the directive so far. Among those who have is Basu himself. But his critics keep asking uncomfortable questions about the income and assets to his son Chandan.

The other issue relates to the recent "rectification" programme in the party. According to party sources, over 13,000 partymen have been expelled over the past one year, mostly on charges of corruption and association with criminals. The expulsion of one leading member of the Calcutta district committee, Amar Bhattacharyya, created a furore in party circles. But then Calcutta has been one of the most problematic districts for the CPI(M) in recent years. Two senior leaders, Lakshmi Sen, a former secretary
f the unit and Lakshmi Dey, former chief whip of the CPI(M) in the Assembly were actually punished. But then Dey's supporters have bagged the majority of seats in the committees in the Sealdah-Bowbazar area. Similarly, loyalists of former party MP Nepaldev Bhattacharyya have retaliated to his expulsion by capturing most local committees in Baranagore and Cossipore. It has been alleged that the ruling group had selectively targeted its opponents in the name of the rectification drive. On the other hand, t
e party leadership was accused of protecting corrupt comrades.

The corpus of dissenters was thus growing fast and the elections gave them a chance to fight back. The ruling coterie also knew this. Everywhere the battle to control committees took bizarre routes. Even old party hands were sometimes aghast at the means adopted to win these elections. "There is a growing tendency to capture the committees by any means," noted Alok Bosu, party-appointed personal assistant to Industries Minister Bidyut Ganguli in a report, "there is no news as yet of blankets being distri
uted (to get votes). But what is happening is no less (shameful)."

The results so far are giving the bosses at Alimuddin Street anxious moments. In an unprecedented number of committees the official panels have been challenged. At the lowest level there are 19,400 branch committees. Then come local committees numbering 3,200 and 650 zones, committees. Elections to these bodies have been completed.

Polls to 18 district committees will begin later this month. Finally, delegates from the zonal committees will elect the state committee whose members now number 90. Delegates from the state committee elect members of the central committee. There will be about 3000 delegates to the coming party congress, of whom 652 will be from West Bengal.

In the elections held so far dissidents have done well in Nadia, Malda, Murshidabad and Cooch Behar districts. In the other problem district, North 24 Parganas, their ranks have swelled with Subhas Chakraborty and Gautam Dev taking the, lead. Although the ruling group has retained its control in most of the 12 other districts, the dissenters' strength has reportedly grown substantially The scene in Darjeeling has remained hazy ever since the revolt of the unit.

If the factional fights are worrying the ruling clique, it is as much over losing control in the committees as over the battering the party's image has taken in the current elections. No matter how much Biman Bose tries to blame the Press, most partymen know the truth inside out. Worse still, the rank and file now see the leaders fighting among themselves and using them in their fights.

Hence the belated call from the apparatchik to ensure unity in the district committee elections. "This is actually a veiled threat to accept official panels," says a dissident leaden But he is confident that once the members have got the taste for an open election after decades of manipulation, it may not be easy to force them into a show again. In districts like Malda, North 24 Paganas Murshidabad, Cooch Behar, Nadia Midnapore and of course, Calcutta appeals for unity have made no difference. Factiona
feuds and personality clashes among leaders have long been public knowledge. It would be a miracle if the warring factions now decide to forgive and forget.

Traditionally, state secretariat members address (and manage) district conferences before the elections. This time, Biman Bose is scheduled to address eight, Benoy Choudhury seven, Anil Biswas and Benoy Konar five each, Niren Ghosh, Sailen Dasgupta and Nirupain Sen four each; Buddhadev Bhattacharyya three and Shyamal Chakraborty two district conferences. Publicly they will appeal for unanimous panels. But with the aim to ensure that the official panels face as little challenge as possible.

Basu has kept above the poll controversies, leaving it to his lieutenants to fight his battle. Others have commented on the party polls. Basu broke his silence only once when, at the CPI(M)'s November Revolution celebration at Calcutta's Mahajati Sadan, he warned against attempts to split the party Not only in West Bengal, but at national politics also Basu has been his party's standard bearer Even his critics admit he is the lone star who attracts party faithfuls and other people during elections. But in
his autumn this patriarch is getting lonelier in his own house. He has never known another. So he can only care about this house and try t6 set its rules as he thinks right. "It's not because he thinks they stopped him from being PM, though he did feel disappointed over it," says a Basu loyalist, "but because he believes that this is the right line. It is happening to communist parties all over the world. The sooner the party accepts the line, the better for it and for national politics."

For leaders like Anil Biswas and Biman Bose, there is life after Basu. In fact, the two are currently engaged in an intense inner-party race for a berth in the politburo. For this they need to win over the two young PB maneouvrers, Prakash Karat and Sitaram Yechuri, more than they need to have Basu on their side. After his line (on joining the UF government) was rejected at the central committee, Basu could hardly conceal his anger at the Young Turks in the PB. Of late, he is said to have made similar rem
rks about the comrades at Alimuddin Street's Muzaffar Ahmad Bhavan, headquarters of the State unit.

And, he would like the farce of "democratic centralism" to stop now. It looks as if he would at last like the party to "let a hundred flowers bloom." But the Stalinist monolith that he himself helped to build over decades seems to be frustrating much of his efforts now. Maybe, when delegates to the party congress come in February, they will be curious to know about the West Bengal elections. The central committee has finalised the draft political resolution to be presented at the congress. Reports sugges
that the resolution does not shift from the party line on the question of joining the UF government. But the debate is almost certain to be revived. Just as it seems certain that supporters of the Basu line will clamour for the long overdue plenum to discuss amendments to the party constitution.

Closer home, the congress will take place at a time when the Marxists in West Bengal will be gearing up for the next panchayat polls. Leaders are worried that the rift within may widen that time. Memories of the bitterly fought local or zonal committee polls will still be fresh. The party has probed scores of allegations of sabotage during recent elections. The most notable example was of Lakshmi Dey who was accused of working against the party's candidate during the last Assembly elections after he was d
nied further nomination. In the struggle to capture committees, Marxists are losing the support of local people at many places in the state.

But then, the irony is they will look up to Basu against to win the panchayat polls. At 83, Basu may yet lose polls in the party but he is still the best bet for winning other polls for the party.

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