If the country’s Left leaders believed in astrology they would probably be trooping to some of its practitioners right now to do something about their phase of bad luck. First, Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee went against the wishes of the CPI(M) leaders and did not step down before the confidence vote last month. Now, West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has openly opposed his party’s stance on bandhs. This has caused the party leadership to firmly reiterate its known position and Mr Bhattacharjee is likely to face the music in inner party circles. Clarifications by him cannot be ruled out but the damage to the image of the CPI(M) in particular and the Left in general has already been done. This also piles up the odds against the Left which faces elections in West Bengal next year and has already suffered a setback in the recent Panchayat elections. Inner-party conflict could not have come to the CPI(M) at a more inappropriate time when it faces a severe crisis over Singur because of the militant stance adopted by the main opposition party in the state, the Trinamool Congress.
To be fair to Mr Bhattacharjee, he has always opposed bandhs. He had a memorable face-off with members of the CPI(M)’s trade union front Centre for Indian Trade Unions (Citu) several years ago on a bandh day on Kolkata’s Park Street when he encountered a procession on his way to work. CPI(M) leader Sitaram Yechury has lost no time reiterating that strikes remain an important tool for political parties. Few will deny trade unions the right to go on strike after following the due process, something granted in the Constitution. Mr Bhattacharjee in his remarks used both the terms “bandh” and “strike” interchangeably but there is little doubt that what he had in mind was bandhs called by the ruling party, which brought life in the state to a standstill. The Kerala High Court had in fact disallowed such state-sponsored bandhs several years ago, a decision upheld by the Supreme Court. Politicians in Kerala, in the same mould as those in West Bengal, have thereafter resorted to hartals, which may not be as total as a bandh but amount to the same thing, disrupting public life. The culture of calling bandhs now afflicts most parties strong enough to enforce them, with West Bengal experiencing four in the last 12 months.
States like West Bengal and Kerala which are economic laggards can ill afford bandhs and what may have provoked Mr Bhattacharjee was the alacrity with which Citu enforced the bandh last week, disallowing even IT employees from going to work and undoing some of the IT buzz which the state has been painstakingly trying to build. This is a setback and may be explained by the new militancy which the Left cadres may have had to adopt after their poor showing in the Panchayat elections. With Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee sure to lose middle class support over her party’s agitation in Singur, which has put in doubt the future of the Tata Motors factory there, Mr Bhattacharjee may well have thought that this was the time to strengthen his middle class appeal by criticising a practice which is so obviously unpopular. What remains to be seen is how he makes peace with the disciplinary norms within his party.