Kolkata: The political battle for the West Bengal assembly has taken on an added edge with the entry of bureaucrats into the electoral fray.
This follows the departure of bureaucrats that Kolkata witnessed two years ago-some such as Union revenue secretary Sunil Mitra moved to Delhi, while many joined the private sector or took sabbaticals to study at foreign universities.
The Trinamool Congress’ (TMC) decision to field Manish Gupta, former chief secretary of the state, to contest against chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee initially surprised many, but it wasn’t long before the party’s chief and Union rail minister Mamata Banerjee unveiled the idea behind her move.
The mandate for Gupta, widely seen till he retired in 2001 as one of the most loyal officers under former chief minister Jyoti Basu, is to tell people “the inside story” of how the administration in the state has degenerated under the influence of the Left parties that have been in power for the past 34 years, according to a senior TMC leader, who did not want to be identified.
It wasn’t Gupta, home secretary at the time, who decided to open fire on Congress supporters on 21 July 1993, Banerjee recently said at a rally in Kolkata’s Jadavpur constituency, where the former chief secretary is taking on the chief minister. “It was Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee (who was then home minister) who ordered the police to fire.”
Banerjee was referring to the killing of 13 youth Congress supporters in Kolkata when the police opened fire on a rally led by her that was threatening to forcibly enter the Writers Buildings—the West Bengal government’s headquarters. She organizes a rally in Kolkata on 21 July every year to mark the event.
New platform: TMC chief Mamata Banerjee (centre) with former West Bengal chief secretary Manish Gupta (left) at a rally in Kolkata. Photo: PTI
“The administration functioned independently under Congress chief ministers such as Bidhan Chandra Roy and Siddhartha Shankar Ray, but there was too much interference during the Left rule, particularly during Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s term,” alleges Gupta, while promising to revive the administration and to free it of political control if voted to power.
It’s a different matter that leaders of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, say exactly the opposite—that unlike Basu, Bhattacharjee got swayed by bureaucrats, most notably at the time when the state government was acquiring land for Tata Motors Ltd at Singur, and often ignored advice from within the party’s various wings such as the All India Krishak Sabha, which represents peasants.
“Most retired bureaucrats are living a life of dignity,” says Bhattacharjee at a rally in the government’s defence, rejecting the notion that retired bureaucrats have turned against the Left. “Only a handful of them are contesting against us... People can figure out why.”
Amid the war of words, both are working hard to reach out to the 253,000 voters of the Jadavpur constituency on the southern fringes of Kolkata, from where Bhattacharjee has been winning since 1987— each time by some 40,000-50,000 votes.
“The amount of time he (Bhattacharjee) has spent in his constituency this time is remarkable,” said a local CPM leader, who did not want to be named. He addressed and fielded questions from students separately, something the chief minister has done for the first time.
Asked at a press conference why he didn’t campaign outside his constituency as extensively as he did in the past, Bhattacharjee said: “Our party has other people to do that; I don’t need to go everywhere.”
Clearly, he is desperate to turn the tide from the 2009 general election, when the CPM’s lead from the Jadavpur assembly constituency had gone down to 19,000 votes and the party lost the Jadavpur parliamentary constituency, a traditional stronghold, to Kabir Suman of the TMC, a first-timer in electoral politics.
Suman, though, is conspicuous by his absence in the high-stakes battle at Jadavpur. A known dissident, he has thrown his weight behind other TMC candidates, particularly those that belong to the party’s culture brigade of singers and actors.