'Confronting The Centre At Every Turn Is Not My Business'

The West Bengal chief minister speaks to Ashis K. Biswas on a host of issues after completing a year in office.

'Confronting The Centre At Every Turn Is Not My Business'

For Buddhadeva Bhattacharya, West Bengal chief minister, the first year of histenure has not been easy, but then it could have been a lot worse. He hasnotched up major positives in this short period -- a partial restoration ofinvestors' confidence in the state, tighter discipline in government offices anddepartments, a new emphasis on time-bound programme implementation, stricterwork norms in schools, colleges and hospitals, a surge in IT industries. Aboveall, better centre-state relations,( yes indeed), even if the BJP rules in Delhiand the CPI(M) in Kolkata!

The familiar negatives too, abound -- resistance to change from partymandarins and hardcore trade union leaders, carping from allies, negativetactics from the Trinamool Congress, mounting crime, illegal Bangladeshiinfiltration, politically backed encroachment.

So what is the major difference between Jyoti Basu, who also faced the sameproblems, and Bhattacharya?

The answer in brief is that unlike Basu, Bhattacharya is far more hands-on,proactive. 'He told our leaders that he had some definite programmes in mind,when he took over as chief minister. He has certainly lived up to his promise sofar,' admits a CPI(M) state committee member.

At a time when people have lost faith in politicians, Bhattacharya is one manwho believes in taking on problems head long, never mind the media/publicreaction. A few case studies are reduction of official holidays, emphasis onpunctuality and work norms, discipline in government offices, hospitals, schoolsand colleges right down to the district level -- measures that go against thegrain of the Bengali babu stereotype. With all due respect, even Basu neverattempted any such crackdown against the mighty babudom in the state!

Bhattacharya's transparency and personal honesty are traits that endear himnot only to common people but to his political opponents in the Congress or theBJP as well. 'He has revived the earlier respect that the educated BengaliBhadralok enjoyed in India, for his culture and refinement,' admits the ailingCongress leader Somen Mitra.

Union Minister Pramod Mahajan recently told friends in Delhi that the LeftFront ran an efficient government in Bengal, in comparison with other states. Healso cleared several pending IT projects for the state during a recent visit anda meeting with Bhattacharya.

On his part, Bhattacharya told Outlook, 'It is not my business toinvite confrontation at every turn with the Centre or the parties that opposeus,' -- a far cry from the pugnacious Basu approach towards anything associatedwith Delhi.

Following are the excerpts of the interview:

Congratulations on completing your first year in office, chief minister.Shall we begin with a general statement on the law and order situation and therecent controversy over the proposed Bengal anti-terrorist ordinance (POCA)?

To begin with, our critics opposing the proposed legislation have not readits provisions. The fact is after the recent kidnapping of P. Roy Burman, theowner of the Khadim shoes chain, which was masterminded by the Dubai-based crimemafia, we had been discussing the nuts and bolts of a preventive legislationthat would enable our police and investigators to deal with such crimes moreeffectively.

Then, there is the very real threat posed by the Pak-based ISI in our state,it is entrenched very deeply here. The situation in our border districts, northBengal is very sensitive. There is no question of any harassment of innocentcivilians in our proposed Act. The police can arrest only people who havealready been arrested twice before on different charges.

Other than that, it is directed against kidnappers, hijackers and armedinsurgents seeking to disrupt peace. I mean, we cannot just sit idle -- afterSeptember 11 the Centre has been sending us alerts daily regarding possiblestrikes on railway trains, airports, official buildings. We too had suffered afew blasts in railway stations, etc.

But there are plenty of safeguards. On the legal side, we will ensure thatbail applications, etc would not be heard in the absence of the publicprosecutor in any court. The confusion arose because just when we were about toannounce our plans, the Centre came out with its plans to have POTO in place.Naturally, there were anxious queries whether the two Acts would be similar.

If so, what was the Left Front doing opposing the POTO in Delhi butintroducing POCA in Bengal, asked people. No one bothered to read the provisionsof each act and ascertain what the differences were !

What about the crime situation. Is it worse than before?

Not at all. True, there have been some incidents, but please look up theNational Crime Record for 1999 prepared by the central government . Do you know,both in terms of crime and number of policemen per 100,000 of the population,Bengal has the lowest figures?

No, we were not aware of that. Of late, the allies of the CPI(M) --- theForward Bloc, RSP, and the CPI -- have become very vocal against the CPI(M),criticising some of the recent LF decisions. Are they becoming more criticalthan before, when Basu was the chief minister?

I do not think it is not a major problem. They expressed differences underBasu also. There is the Left front committee which is playing a major role thesedays, where intra-front relations are concerned. Personally, I try my best toensure collective, transparent functioning, not just within the CPI(M) but withother parties too, on any major programme or policy.


Ironically, these days relations between the CPI(M) and the BJP seem to bebetter, if your personal equations with leaders like Prime Minister Vajpayee,L.K.Advani et al, are any indication.

I don't know about that, but then it is not my policy to inviteconfrontations with the Centre or parties opposing us. The political differencesbetween the BJP and the CPI(M) are too fundamental to be bridged and theyremain. I am critical of the role played by BJP front organisations like the VHP,the RSS. But all this has nothing do with ministerial level meetings I have withsay, leaders like Ram Naik, Advani, Vajpayee,  Pramod Mahajan, SushmaSwaraj or Yashwant Sinha.


Why should personal relationships turn sour just because we are in differentparties? We do make our points, declare our stand on issues at NDA meets, theInter-State Council and so on and I think there is a fair exchange of views --on overdrafts, internal security, appointment of governors, Article 356 and soon.

After all different parties rule different states these days. So far I havehad no major problems.

What is the economic/industrial situation in Bengal, now that you havebeen at the helm for a year?

As you know we are in the middle of a continuing recession, but I canmodestly claim that perhaps our state has done better than others. In terms ofrate rate of growth, food production and new investments (which have dried up asa whole) our figures are still above national average figures.


We have made progress in chemicals, plastics, leather and hosiery sectors,but the major thrust has occurred in IT. Our software exports last year were Rs935 crore, which we crossed in September this year.

Tea, jute, and engineering continue to cause concern, but here the causes arebeyond our control. Import of tea is allowed, which hurts our industry, whilethe closure of major units like MAMC, BBJ, Cycle Corporation etc , killshundreds of ancillary units. True, new downstream units over 600 have been setup after the Haldia Petrochem installation, but the spate of closures continues.

In IT, Wipro is setting up a hardware producing unit here, while IBM isproviding IT facilities in 300 selected schools. Microsoft is helping with thetraining of IT instructors who will teach students in schools and beyond.


Regarding coal mines, we are working out some packages for workers, whilesome losing mines may have to be shut. After Japan, Malaysian authorities haveexpressed interest in industries here, the Kulpi Bengal port project forinstance. They would help us build the Kolkata-Haldia and the Kolkata-Kulpihighways.

The ADB will help the construction of the Rs 700 crore Kolkata-Siligurihighway. Mitsubishi will build a monorail project and an additional bridge overthe Hooghly at Raidak.

In tourism, the Sahara group is investing Rs 900 crore for setting upinfrastructural facilities in the Sunderbans. The British will assisttechnically in implementing the Rs 60 crore north Calcutta canal project. Theseare some of the many projects we have in hand .


What about your literary activities, do you still find time to write asbefore?

It gets increasingly difficult, but I do read until pretty late hours, oftenwaking up bleary-eyed in the mornings. As for writing, I get less time thanbefore. I do not watch much TV but do follow cricket.