What lies beneath: Bengal parties face off over Padma offer to Buddha

AFTER A long time, on Tuesday, there was buzz around a small flat on Kolkata’s Palm Avenue that once was the hub of state politics. Twenty-four hours later, the murmurs have grown, with everyone trying to read between the lines of the Modi government’s offer of Padma Bhushan to the flat’s illustrious resident, the Left’s erstwhile prominent face and former West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee — as well as his terse rejection of the same.

The Trinamool Congress’s mouthpiece Jago Bangla Wednesday carried a piece underlining that the Centre’s Padma Bhushan list included the names of both Bhattacharjee and the late BJP leader Kalyan Singh. The CPM has always held Kalyan, the CM of Uttar Pradesh when the Babri Masjid was demolished, as one of the main culprits for the incident.

“BJP-r goodbooke kara? Ram-Bam ghnot fnash (Who all are in the BJP’s good books? Ram-Left coalition unearthed),” Jago Bangla said, while the TMC leaders reiterated their old argument that the Left and BJP are actually aligned in the state against the TMC.

The CPM, which rushed to contain the situation after the Padma announcement became public, pointed to the statement released by Bhattacharjee: “I know nothing about this award. No one has told me anything about it. If they have decided to offer Padma Bhushan to me, I refuse to accept it.”

In a statement released after this, CPM state secretray Suryakanta Misra had said: “Buddhadeb Bhattacharya has asked me to request everybody, including government officials, not to call/visit him in this matter. All official contacts may kindly be made at his residential/ CPM WB State Committee address by postal correspondence considering his health condition.”

A senior CPM leader told The Indian Express that it wasn’t the first time Communist leaders had refused State awards. “E M S Namboodiripad had refused a Padma award proposal in 1992… It is against our ethics. A Communist never does politics or fights for the working class for any award or recognition.”

But, the leader admitted, the fact that the offer came from the Modi government was particularly galling. “We are fighting against the Modi government and BJP relentlessly. We are the only party fighting against communalism from day one. We have never compromised with communalism. So, there was no question of accepting the award, especially when one of the awardees is Kalyan Singh.”

Many Left leaders also wondered aloud over the “hidden motive” behind the BJP’s offer. The BJP’s remarkable performance in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in the state showed that a big chunk of the CPM vote had shifted to it. However, since then, many have moved back, particularly after the TMC’s landslide victory in last year’s Assembly elections. The recent Kolkata municipal polls indicated this reverse shift. “In this scenario, the BJP hoped that the gesture from PM Narendra Modi towards Buddhadeb, a popular leader, would go down well with the CPM vote bank,” a Left leader said.

Denying this, a senior leader of the BJP who did not want to be identified said: “The Central government wanted to honour Buddhababu, but his party made another blunder refusing it.”

The blunder remark was probably a reference to the CPM’s refusal to let its other Bengal stalwart, Jyoti Basu, take up an opportunity to become PM as the head of a coalition on ideological grounds. The late CPM leader Harkishen Surjeet had described the party decision as “a historic blunder”.

Bhattacharjee himself often skirted the CPM’s hard ideological positions, especially on economic issues and particularly towards the end of his term as CM, faced with the growing Mamata Banerjee challenge and West Bengal’s mounting growth woes.

For a while, he was seen as more of a darling of the Centre than the CPM leadership, with the A K G Bhawan mandarins not taking too kindly to his projection as the ‘Deng Xiaoping’ of West Bengal (a reference to the Chinese reformer leader).To Bhattacharjee’s 2008 remark that the routine bandhs in Bengal should stop, the CPM had said the party supports the fundamental right of workers to strike.

Given his huge mandate in the 2006 Assembly elections, 235 of 294 seats, for a long time, Bhattacharjee could overlook the CPM’s objections.

However, after the 2009 Lok Sabha poll debacle, when the CPM had won just nine seats in Bengal, there were reports that Bhattacharjee had offered to resign. In a review of the results, the Central Committee had talked of “shortcomings in the functioning of the government, panchayats and municipalities, based on a proper class outlook”..

Finally, it were the Singur anti-land acquisition movement (which stalled Bhattacharjee’s much-publicised bid to get Tatas to the state) and Nandigram killings, that ended Bhattacharjee’s golden run. Defeated in 2011, the CPM has since kept shrinking.

The last time Bhattacharjee made an appearance at a CPM event was in 2019, for a party rally. Because of his ailment, he never got off his vehicle.

Just before the Assembly elections in 2021, the CPM had released a written message by him to the people of the state, requesting them not to vote for the TMC and BJP. While the TMC again swept the state and the BJP came second, the CPM and its allies did not win a single seat.

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