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'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.

Ashis K. Biswas INTERVIEWS | 12 December 2001
'Confronting The Centre At Every Turn Is Not My Business'
'Confronting The Centre At Every Turn Is Not My Business'
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+0553

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

The familiar negatives too, abound -- resistance to change from party mandarins and hardcore trade union leaders, carping from allies, negative tactics from the Trinamool Congress, mounting crime, illegal Bangladeshi infiltration, politically backed encroachment.

So what is the major difference between Jyoti Basu, who also faced the same problems, 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 so far,' admits a CPI(M) state committee member.

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

Bhattacharya's transparency and personal honesty are traits that endear him not only to common people but to his political opponents in the Congress or the BJP as well. 'He has revived the earlier respect that the educated Bengali Bhadralok enjoyed in India, for his culture and refinement,' admits the ailing Congress leader Somen Mitra.

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

On his part, Bhattacharya told Outlook, 'It is not my business to invite confrontation at every turn with the Centre or the parties that oppose us,' -- a far cry from the pugnacious Basu approach towards anything associated with 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 the recent controversy over the proposed Bengal anti-terrorist ordinance (POCA)?

To begin with, our critics opposing the proposed legislation have not read its provisions. The fact is after the recent kidnapping of P. Roy Burman, the owner of the Khadim shoes chain, which was masterminded by the Dubai-based crime mafia, we had been discussing the nuts and bolts of a preventive legislation that would enable our police and investigators to deal with such crimes more effectively.

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, north Bengal is very sensitive. There is no question of any harassment of innocent civilians in our proposed Act. The police can arrest only people who have already been arrested twice before on different charges.

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

But there are plenty of safeguards. On the legal side, we will ensure that bail applications, etc would not be heard in the absence of the public prosecutor in any court. The confusion arose because just when we were about to announce 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 but introducing POCA in Bengal, asked people. No one bothered to read the provisions of 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 the National 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) --- the Forward Bloc, RSP, and the CPI -- have become very vocal against the CPI(M), criticising some of the recent LF decisions. Are they becoming more critical than before, when Basu was the chief minister?

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

Ironically, these days relations between the CPI(M) and the BJP seem to be better, 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 invite confrontations with the Centre or parties opposing us. The political differences between the BJP and the CPI(M) are too fundamental to be bridged and they remain. 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 with say, leaders like Ram Naik, Advani, Vajpayee,  Pramod Mahajan, Sushma Swaraj or Yashwant Sinha.

Why should personal relationships turn sour just because we are in different parties? We do make our points, declare our stand on issues at NDA meets, the Inter-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 so on.

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

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

As you know we are in the middle of a continuing recession, but I can modestly claim that perhaps our state has done better than others. In terms of rate rate of growth, food production and new investments (which have dried up as a 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 Rs 935 crore, which we crossed in September this year.

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

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

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

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

In tourism, the Sahara group is investing Rs 900 crore for setting up infrastructural facilities in the Sunderbans. The British will assist technically in implementing the Rs 60 crore north Calcutta canal project. These are some of the many projects we have in hand .

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

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

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