His name in the list of Padma Bhushan awardees surprised most political observers in West Bengal. After all, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, West Bengal’s last Leftist chief minister (2000-11), is known to be a staunch critic of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Therefore, his decision to decline the award did not come as a surprise to anyone observing political developments in West Bengal.
Within an hour of the news broke that he has been named a recipient of the Padma Bhushan award came a brief statement in Bengali that reads, when translated to English, “I don't know anything about Padma Bhusan award, and none has to me anything about it. If I have been given Padma Bhushan, I refuse to accept it.”
CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechuri soon took to Twitter to share his statement. The party later explained the stand in a tweet, “Com. Buddhadeb Bhattacharya who was nominated for the Padma Bhushan award has declined to accept it. The CPI(M) policy has been consistent in declining such awards from the State. Our work is for the people not for awards. Com EMS who was earlier offered an award had declined it.”
The 77-year-old Bhattacharjee has been away from public life – mostly because of his failing health – for most part of the last 11 years since losing the chair of the chief minister to Banerjee in 2011. He is known to live a Spartan life in a small two-room apartment.
Bhattacharjee’s positions against the BJP is so staunch that ahead of the 2021 assembly elections, when the Trinamool Congress (TMC) was carrying out a high-voltage campaign blaming the Left for transferring their traditional votes to the BJP ‘in a planned manner’, chief minister Mamata Banerjee had hailed Bhattacharjee’s uncompromising stand against the BJP. He had also urged the party’s supporters against falling in the trap of voting for the BJP to defeat the TMC.
To Bengal’s political observers, his refusal was more than expected. But the Centre’s choice itself was unexpected.
Biswanath Chakraborty, a professor of political science at Rabindra Bharati University in Kolkata, the BJP would gain public sympathy after showing that they can go beyond petty politics of rivalry of parties when it comes to issues of national importance. “The BJP will show how they can go beyond petty rivalries for greater causes, while the Left will be seen as an entity that can never see beyond organizational rivalries, even when it comes to the question of such prestigious awards given not by a party but a government,” Chakraborty said.
He added that Bhattacharjee's prompt response declining the award could also be because the CPI(M) did not want to allow the state’s ruling party, the Trinamool Congress (TMC), any opportunity to accuse the CPI(M) of having an understanding with the BJP.
According to a senior journalist, who did not want to be named, the move was aimed at appeasing the Left supporters.
“In Bengal, the BJP grew mostly with the votes of traditional Left supporters who chose the BJP to defeat the TMC. In the last few elections, there was a trend of the Left recovering some of its votes that it lost to the BJP. Naming Bhattacharjee, who is still a darling to the state’s Left supporters, has mostly to deal with addressing these Left supporters who voted for the BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections or the 2021 assembly elections,” the journalist said.
Udayan Bandyopadhyay, who teaches political science at Bangabasi College in Kolkata, however, felt that if the BJP had to please the CPI(M), or Left supporters, they could have chosen several other Left leaders.
“For example, why didn’t they choose former Kerala chief minister V S Achuthanandan? He is the last of the nine communist stalwarts who formed the first politburo of the CPI(M). Recognising Bhattacharjee’s contribution among other communist leaders has to do with his industrial policies, which were close to the policies of India’s ruling forces but a departure from communist practices,” Bandyopadhyay said.
On social media, several persons asked if Bhattacharjee was not contacted by the Union government to seek his consent before announcing his name, as is the norm. Legendary Bengali singer Sandhya Mukhopadhyay and tabla player Anindya Chattopadhyay were contacted on Tuesday evening, informing that the government wanted to confer Padma Shri on them, but both of them declined.
Mukherjee said she, at 90, was too old for Padma Shri, the lowest among the Padma Awards. Chattopadhyay, too, refused the award, saying his juniors had already got it. Since they refused during the telephonic conversation, their names did not feature in the list.
But Bhattacharjee’s name did feature in the list. His family later explained that he was on his bed when a call came in the afternoon and someone else received it. The caller had informed about the government’s decision but the line got disconnected before the caller could be informed of his opinion. Since the call was from a landline number to Bhattacharjee’s landline number, the family could not verify who the call came from.
By night, Left supporters were seen in a rejuvenated mode on social media, using Bhattacharjee’s refusal as a badge of honour, highlighting how only communists could have such an uncompromising attitude towards ‘religious fanatics.’
Supporters of the BJP, on the other hand, blamed the CPI(M) for being ‘anti-nationals forever’, who rejected an honour given by the Union government.