EVER since the news broke out that Chief Minister Jyoti Basu's son, Chandan Basu, had met Pramod Mahajan, Prime Minister Vajpayee's political advisor, there have been denials and counter-denials. Chandan Basu first denied it, then said it was a chance encounter. Ditto Mahajan. Finally, at the Gandhinagar BJP plenary, Mahajan said he did meet Chandan but insisted it was a courtesy call.
Now, the question doing the rounds is why should the son of a veteran CPI(M) leader, who always savages the BJP as "a party of uncivilised barbarians", seek audience with a "barbarian", so to speak? What possible business links could he have with Mahajan? Critics in the Trinamul Congress point out that an instinct for self-preservation could have impelled Basu junior to approach Mahajan.
Says Pankaj Banerjee, president of Trinamul Congress: "Our Bengal package submitted to the BJP contains specific demands for a thorough probe into the assets of Chandan Basu and we have back-up documentary evidence. Mahajan or no Mahajan, we shall see there is no cover-up this time," echoing his leader Mamata Banerjee, who has questioned the provenance of funds provided to ensure the education—in England—of Jyoti Basu's grandchildren.
But, is there a probe against Chandan? Yes, according to officials of central investigating agencies. "We were first asked to investigate Chandan's assets while Deve Gowda was prime minister. When I.K. Gujral took over, it was stopped. Now, the cases have been reopened again. Much of the spadework was done when Ajit Panja (now Mamata ally) was Union minister for revenue." So, is this why Chandan met Mahajan, because he has the ears of the prime minister? No one knows for sure.
While the Left Front tried to play down the encounter—the Central Committee's Anil Biswas declined comment—it has provided one more stick for Trinamul Congress to beat the Left with. The Trinamul Congress saw it as a clear ploy of "trying to blackmail the government". As for the other Left partners, CPI state secretary Manju Majumdar said "a meeting between Mahajan and Basu junior cannot be a matter that concerns the Left Front. I have no idea what they talked about. I am told that they have mutual business interests of which I have no knowledge".
The "business interests" is the problem area. For, though Chandan Basu may be apolitical, unimportant he is not, in Bengal that is. Congress leader Saugata Ray is categorical that "Chandan represents his father Jyoti Basu in circles where the latter cannot make a direct access. He is known to have acted for his father in business as well as political circles." This view is endorsed by a senior scribe who covered a recent meeting of the Confederation of Indian Industries in Calcutta. "Jyoti Basu introduced his son to a number of industrialists and others. In fact, there was a picture of him in a Calcutta daily the next day talking to business magnates," he recalls.Observers point out that there has been growing criticism within the CPI(M) about the rise and rise of Basu junior.
Another Front partner, the Forward Bloc, added to the gossip mill by claiming that Mahajan and Chandan know each other very well—"why the media focus on this meet alone?" FB insiders say they have seen Mahajan's pilot son Pradip hobnobbing with Chandan Basu some months ago in Calcutta, ostensibly in connection with the making of a film.
Of course, no one dares to question the chief minister on such matters anymore. People who did, have had to pay dearly. As the maverick Jatin Chakravarty found out years ago. It all started with Jyoti Basu ordering the state government to place large orders with the Bengal Lamp company where son Chandan was an employee. Chakravarty put a dissenting note and the matter was picked up by the press. He was dropped unceremoniously—and later contributed this gem to explain Left politics in Bengal: "The Left Front has made only two contributions, Chandan and Nandan (a film complex)."Incidentally, this was the first hint that Chandan could well move into big time—with official backing.
Party insiders point out that the 1993 ouster of Jyoti Basu's heir apparent, Buddhadev Bhattacharya, too had occurred after a bitter exchange over the chief minister taking his son along on official trips abroad. Jyoti Basu's stock response then was: "My son and his family members pay their expenses when they accompany me on these trips."
Jyoti Basu has tended to dismiss suggestions that his son received undue favours from the administration and business circles. "My son is not in politics, he is in business, which does not concern me. And if he is guilty of some wrongdoing, surely there are laws in the land to deal with them," he had once said, implying that the anti-Chandan campaign sustained by a section of the local media was occasioned more by jealousy than by hard evidence.
Some Left leaders agree. "In this country documents relating to alleged financial scams involving Sharad Pawar, the Jains, even L.K. Advani and others are available and can be published. Why can't his detractors unearth a single tell-tale document showing that Chandan Basu is no angel? Why has the media failed to implicate Jyoti Basu or his family in the same way they have gone for Sukh Ram or Kalpnath Rai?"
They insist that if there was a figment of truth in the allegations something would have come out. For, Basu junior, quarantined from the unfriendly gaze of the fourth estate, and flush with his business successes, is ideally suited to attract criticism. "From a fledgling executive in 1978, Chandan is now a firmly established member of the international celeb circuit, whom commentator Ravi Shastri singles out for special identification during one-day matches. Truly, he has come a long way, and must learn to cope with the stresses and strains this must engender for himself and his father," says a senior newsman. Interestingly, Basu senior's recent biographies (mostly breathless eulogies) throw no light on the emergence of Chandan Basu as a power in his own right, the writers skirting the issue altogether since Jyoti Basu doesn't like the subject.
But whether Jyoti Basu likes it or not, there is much speculation about his son's business interests. After Bengal Lamp, Chandan was associated with the Eastern Biscuits Company, Durgapur. Then, he set up an office at Bondel Road, Calcutta, under the auspices of Eastern Carriers. He was also a handling agent of Indian Oil. Now, there are unconfirmed reports that he plans to set up fisheries in coastal Midnapore in the name of some Andhra-based firms, and may get a loan from the local cooperative for another of his business ventures.
More than anything else, his transparent high living leaves Basu's son exposed to barbs. His hands-off attitude towards the press doesn't help either.
State BJP vice-president Paras Dutta is confident that a cover-up on the probe against Chandan's assets will not be easy. "People like Chandan Basu are small fry and they will find out that the BJP is different from the United Front or Congress. When Jyoti Basu called on Advani on the issue of a new governor for Bengal, Advani met him, heard him and then proceeded to appoint Kidwai regardless of his views. That should carry a clear message."