Can Bengal’s poet-playwright Chief Minister pull out of his current depression in time for the looming Assembly elections?
Can Bengal’s poet-playwright Chief Minister pull out of his current depression in time for the looming Assembly elections?
Sixteen years ago, a depressed and disillusioned Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee penned a play—Dushshamay (Bad Times). He had just walked out of the Jyoti Basu cabinet, calling it a ‘council of thieves’. As Chief Minister of West Bengal, Bhattacharjee is more disheartened and disenchanted today, and he is not only harbouring thoughts of stepping down, but is also planning a darker sequel to the play. He has retreated into a shell, avoiding most of his comrades and slashing his public engagements. The only activity he has stepped up is his smoking, something that his doctors, family and close friends want him to curtail at the very least, if not give up. But for a man who is depressed and disgusted with the way things are turning out for his party and state, forsaking the high of tobacco seems impossible at this juncture, even though he suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a chest ailment common to heavy smokers. But more than his physical condition, it is his mental state that causes concern. Bhattacharjee is on anti-depressants, apart from a cocktail of other drugs.
What the CM would like to do most right now is shut out the world. Which is exactly what he did last week when he turned a two-day visit to North Bengal into a five-day retreat. This extension of his stay at a West Bengal Forest Development Corporation bungalow at sylvan Mongpong, near Siliguri, not only evoked endless speculation over his health, but also drove home the point that he wants to stay away from the mess that isn’t of his making alone. “The CM is physically unwell. But he’s also mentally upset with the way his party is treating him after the Lok Sabha debacle. He feels abandoned and thinks he’s being unfairly blamed for the reverses the party has suffered of late. He’s also disgusted with the corruption and bickering among his ministers. The Vedic Village controversy, which forced him to scrap the IT Park project that was close to his heart, has left him totally disillusioned,” says the state’s PWD Minister Kshiti Goswami.
A handful of politicians close to Bhattacharjee tell Open that his decision to skip last weekend’s politburo meeting in New Delhi was his way of conveying his displeasure to the party leadership, especially Prakash Karat, over the attempts to blame him and his government for the Lok Sabha poll setback. That he didn’t go to New Delhi and went to North Bengal instead—ostensibly to campaign for municipal polls in Siliguri—was indicative enough of this. But then, his decision to extend his stay at Mongpong stumped his comrades. The flimsy excuses held out by his aides to explain his extended stay only served to create more confusion about Bhattacharjee’s state of well being. “The explanations given out—the first day, it was said that due to cancellation of the Jet Airways flight to Kolkata, the CM was staying back; on the second day, it was said that the only flight from Siliguri to Kolkata was of a low-cost carrier that had no business class and would thus be a security risk for the CM—didn’t cut any ice. Such weak explanations added grist to rumour mills,” says Goswami.
But it is true that Bhattacharjee’s physical condition worsened when he went to North Bengal—he complained of shortness of breath, cough and chest pain—but that wasn’t serious enough to warrant his overstay there. “Had he really been so ill, a team of senior physicians, or at least his personal doctors, would have rushed there. Only a small team of junior government doctors examined him at Mongpong,” confides a senior minister who does not want to be named. Sources close to the CM say he wanted to stay away from Kolkata and “all the dirty goings-on there” (reportedly his own words). With his wife Meera for company, Bhattacharjee caught up on his reading and listened to music (Rabindrasangeet and Nazrulgeeti). He also discussed politics with Urban Development Minister Ashoke Bhattacharjee, who’s close to him and in charge of North Bengal.
Bhattacharjee’s party, the CPM, lost the Siliguri polls. Back in Kolkata, he has started attending to work and is maintaining his earlier schedule—going to office after a stopover at the state party headquarters at Alimuddin Street, returning home for lunch and a siesta, office again for a few hours till 7 in the evening, a couple of hours at Nandan (the state cultural complex where the CM relaxes and meets his friends from the world of arts), before going back to his two-bedroom Palm Avenue residence in South Kolkata. Like in the past, Bhattacharjee has sought refuge in literature. He is re-visiting his earlier translations of a few plays by Russian poet, author and playwright Vladimir Mayakovsky. The CM wants to translate a few of Mayakovsky’s poems into Bengali. “He has also expressed his desire to re-read Gabriel Garcia Marquez, some of whose works he had earlier translated into Bengali. He has asked for some books of Tagore’s plays,” a close aide tells Open. Bhattacharjee is also keen on reading some new Pakistani, Iranian and Middle Eastern authors who’ve won critical acclaim lately. Amidst all this, he’s also planning to write another play himself. “Maybe a sequel to Dushshamay, but he’s not keen to discuss it with even his close friends who have been encouraging him of late to read and write,” says the aide. “Reading and writing would be the best way for a culturally inclined and sensitive person like Buddhadeb to get out of his present depressed state,” adds a prominent litterateur who’s close to him.
It is learnt that one of Bhattacharjee’s playwright friends suggested he write a play fictionalising his experiences in government—how a popular leader gets done in by a strange interplay of complicated events beyond his control, and how the leader stages a comeback by beating all odds. Bhattacharjee is reported to have only smiled in response.
Close associates like Ashoke Bhattacharjee are confident that it is only a matter of time before he bounces back. “He’s feeling low now, and that’s only natural. But he has a series of party programmes lined up. He’s readying himself to take issues head on and very firmly at the next state secretariat meeting. He’ll also attend the next politburo meeting,” says another junior minister who shares a good rapport with Bhattacharjee. Ministerial and party colleagues who he trusts have been advising him to re-assert himself within the party and government, instead of allowing things to drift dangerously. “The crises we’re facing today also offer us opportunities. We can stem the downslide if we tackle issues like corruption in the party and wrongdoings by some of our colleagues in the ministry and the party very boldly and firmly,” says one of them.
Bhattacharjee is said to be slowly coming round to this view. “He’s been keeping quiet and listening to suggestions very seriously. This is a welcome change from the state he was in a couple of weeks ago, soon after the Vedic Village controversy erupted, when he seemed to have lost all hope and was feeling like giving up,” says the junior minister. This cabinet member, along with a handful of other trusted comrades, has taken it upon himself to see Bhattacharjee through his depression and instill in him the desire to fight back. Apart from a lot of pep talk peppered with suggestions on practical steps that could be taken to reverse the party’s declining fortunes, this group never tires of reminding the CM of his kinship with revolutionary poet Sukanta Bhattacharya (a first cousin of the CM’s father), whose works continue to inspire Bhattacharjee.
This core group of associates has been urging Bhattacharjee to roll up his sleeves and get down to work. “But the top-most priority now is to get him to cut down on his smoking and get him back to good health. Then political and administrative matters will be tackled,” says a party colleague who meets the CM nearly every day. As for his depression, his comrades have been urging his friends to give him a lot of their time. “It is necessary to give him company, listen to him, empathise with him and offer him mental support. We’ve all been doing this. I’m confident he’ll be in a very positive frame of mind after emerging from this depression very soon,” says his playwright friend. He discloses that while Bhattacharjee used to maintain a stony and sullen silence till even last week (before leaving for North Bengal), he has been a little more positive after his return.
But for all the support that Bhattacharjee has been drawing from some of his comrades and friends, many others are sharpening their knives. Led by Prakash Karat, or at least drawing inspiration from the CPM general secretary, Bhattacharjee’s detractors are hellbent on not only making him bear the cross for the serial reverses that the party has suffered over the last couple of years, but also crucifying him. “It is unfair to blame the Chief Minister alone for all that has happened. More than the CM, it is his party that has to accept major responsibility. The CPM’s past has finally caught up with it. People now see the CPM as a party of corrupt, unprincipled men and women who’re arrogant to boot. The CPM’s high-handedness and undemocratic actions all these years, the repression and atrocities the party’s cadres have committed on the people, are responsible for this decline,” assesses a Forward Bloc leader.
A CPI minister says that Bhattacharjee’s own mistakes are limited only to his haste in implementing the state’s new industrialisation agenda and his highly individualistic style of functioning. “Buddhababu created a distance between himself and his colleagues. He has been taking decisions without really consulting his cabinet colleagues or partners in the Left Front,” the CPI leader adds. Bhattacharjee’s detractors, as well as the Front partners, are now pushing for clipping the CM’s wings and forcing him to adhere to the spirit of collective decision-making. “Since 2001, and especially over the last three years since he got this massive mandate, he has been bypassing the cabinet on even major policy matters. This was wrong and has to be rectified,” he adds.
It is accusations like these, and the resultant efforts to downsize him, which anger and upset Bhattacharjee. His core group of supporters has now rallied to fight back and resist attempts to curtail his power and prestige. But they are yet to muster enough support. Given this, Bhattacharjee is wary of sticking his neck out any more by initiating harsh measures to cleanse the party and his government. But, say his supporters, the situation is evolving and changing. “We feel there’s greater danger for the party in allowing things to drift as is happening now. The industrialisation agenda cannot be abandoned. The state machinery has to regain control decisively in areas like Lalgarh,” says a senior cabinet minister.
But as things appear at present, this is just wishful thinking. “Pursuing industrialisation aggressively would bring to fore the issue of acquiring fertile farmland. We’ve already suffered a lot on this score. Our rural constituency has got alienated. It would be suicidal to go in for more acquisition,” says another senior minister who’s perceived to be close to Karat. As for Lalgarh, decisive administrative action means a harsh offensive against Maoist rebels, with its attendant collateral damage. There is, thus, a strong constituency within the CPM and the government that’s all for allowing things to drift till the next Assembly polls. This powerful section fears that any action would only make things worse for the party. “There is no point in trying to get investors back to the state now,” says the minister close to Karat, “We’ll have to go back to the masses.”
Meanwhile, the debate within the CPM on who and what is to blame for the Lok Sabha debacle is yet to run its full course. “Nandigram happened on Buddhadeb’s watch and the party central leadership had nothing to do with it. The argument that the withdrawal of support to the UPA facilitated the electoral alliance between the Trinamool and the Congress that led to our setback is also inherently flawed, since it is an oblique admission that the Left lost due to a united opposition. Bhattacharjee has been pleading that he was misled on Nandigram and Singur. A Chief Minister can ill afford to be misled,” says a senior CPM functionary who has been scathing in his criticism of the CM in various party forums. He confirms that Bhattacharjee’s offer to resign after the Lok Sabha polls would have been considered seriously by the party had an alternative been in sight.
“Right now, there’s no one who can replace him. But that doesn’t mean there’ll be no one in future to step into his shoes. By ‘future’, I do not mean the distant future,” he adds. Ominous, this, for Bhattacharjee and his small band of supporters. That is why, feel many in the CPM who know Bhattacharjee well, the CM feels he can do little to stem the drift at the moment.
Despite all the morale-boosting advice he’s been getting, Bhattacharjee perhaps realises that he’s facing huge odds. But that does not mean he allows himself to wallow in his present state of mind. So prose, poetry, plays and songs have become his chosen medium to heal himself. Maybe he’ll pen a powerful play. And ensure his place in history as a playwright who had once dreamt of steering Bengal to glory.