The successor is no shrewd political animal in the mould of Basu and this might be quite an impediment in holding together the dissenting streams within the party. Saifuddin Chowdhury's recent exit from the cpi(m) and his efforts to float a political party is probably the least of his troubles. For, those dissenters who continue within the party—Subhash Chakravarty and his hatchet-man Samir Putatunda—pose a much more bothersome hindrance to Bhattacharya and his hard line, by virtue of their incredible mass support. Therefore, the wannabe litterateur-turned-deputy CM's impressive credentials—his clean image, a strong cultural lineage (nephew of the late Marxist poet Sukanta Bhattacharya) and a record of student and youth agitations—would hardly be of any assistance in tackling this recalcitrant faction. And this is only part of a larger problem that he seems to have created for himself—his almost dogmatic adherence to ‘orthodox' Marxism. Belonging to the Vietnam generation, he has an acute distrust for big business and "US imperialism". Basu introduced his deputy to industrialists and shepherded him at important gatherings, to catalyse the thawing of the latter's rigid mindset. But he remains as much of a hard nut as ever.
Within the party too, the introspective Bhattacharya—an alumnus of the radically famous Presidency College and an avid sports lover—has a reputation of listening only to his friends and is currently obsessed with, as a critic puts it, his "newfound love for authority". He is known to take criticism personally, unlike Basu, who simply didn't care what people wrote or said about him.
Buddhadeva's conversion to communism, at age 19 one night in 1963, indicates that he fancies himself more as a poet than a politician. Brought up on the heavy revolutionary diet of Mao, Castro, Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh, he was fascinated by the breaking of waves on the Puri beach and he saw constant synthesis in what was happening. It's not without reason, therefore, that the industry circles and the Calcutta upper crust feel more at home with the cosmopolitan Basu than with his deputy, not least because Basu shares their class background, unlike the middle-class Bhattacharya. In Basu's absence they would instinctively want to interact more with state finance minister Ashim Dasgupta or MP Somnath Chatterjee, who are less doctrinaire than the incoming CM. Significantly, the cpi(m) restrained Chatterjee from resigning his chairmanship of the wbidc in the wake of Basu's resignation.
It is clear that as an heir-apparent, Bhattacharya would find Basu's a hard act to follow. But this can be a distinct advantage in some ways in that the burden of expectations may be less irksome. Says cpi state secretary Manju Majumdar: "Not everyone has Basu's stature and it is not Buddha's fault that he has to succeed Basu." Avers transport minister and traditional Bhattacharya-baiter Subhash Chakravarty: "Basu is irreplaceable but Buddhadeva's efficiency can't be questioned." Chakravarty, of late, has been smoking the peace-pipe with the would-be CM and has had several rounds of meetings with him.Political observers, however, believe that this is an ephemeral truce. Chatterjee, meanwhile, has been more sombre: "Buddha will face hard times and I will help him to the hilt."
Chatterjee could be right. "The Centre would have thought a dozen times whether to impose article 356 in Bengal while Basu was around, but with others, it may be a different story," says an observer.
The impact on state politics should be far-reaching. Says former wbpcc chief Somen Mitra: "In the West Bengal elections, Basu alone swung between 1.5 to 2 per cent of the total votes polled. The Left Front will now find it hard to retain this vote and only around 2 per cent of total votes separate the ruling Left from the opposition." Moreover, allies of the cpi(m), free from the shadow of Basu's towering figure, would assert themselves more now. This could affect the front's unity, compounded by Bhattacharya's more rigid stance in dealing with allies. The new CM has, meanwhile, informed his party that in the current scenario he would like to implement some new ideas.
The going, by all available indicators, will be tough for Basu's successor. Through difficult times, even as the Left crumbled worldwide, Basu won five elections on the trot, creating a record of sorts. Says cpi leader Gurudas Dasgupta: "He achieved more in missing out on prime ministership at 82, leading a handful of Left MPs in a vast country like India, than others could dream of." Critics, however, argue that Basu's achievements mean no more than personal landmarks. Bengal suffered grievously under him (see box). But all agree that things will never be the same again.
Till the end he has managed to retain a measure of political initiative. Basu went out on a high, having crafted a major tactical inner-party victory at the Thiruvananthapuram plenum. Explains a delegate: "From being a minority in the central committee in 1996, which stymied his opportunity of becoming the prime minister, only four years later he turned things around, winning a majority—the cpi(m) has indicated it can join a government at the Centre under certain conditions. In Bengal, he saved the party from a split, holding the liberals and hardliners together. After the heady autumn of 1996, this was his personal triumph."
What lies ahead for the Bengal patriarch, who left his indelible imprint on national politics without ever butting home base? After a political career spanning 60 years, Basu will be no shrinking violet. A spokesman for Ganashakti, the party mouthpiece, says: "Basu is not retiring from politics. He will devote more time to party matters. At 86 he is doing something he never did before, keeping close tabs on state leaders and ministers."
But there're signs that the hardline lobby and Basu are still out of sync. On October 28, hours after his resignation, Basu told newsmen that he planned to address the cpi(m) election rallies for the 2001 assembly polls, even lead the campaign. But Ganashakti editor and cpi(m) state secretary Anil Biswas said: "Basu would address general body (inner party) meetings, in view of his declining health." Basu was also angry with the hardliners for their impromptu announcement some time ago that he was retiring and Bhattacharya, the deputy CM, would succeed him.
The new hardline chief minister steps in when the anti-incumbency factor is loaded heavily against him. With Basu no longer in the frame the Trinamul Congress and the Congress get a more level playing field. The bureaucracy is likely to be more dominant now that Basu will not be there as the final appellate authority.Bhattacharya enters a virtual minefield, confronted by a shattered economy with no immediate prospects for improvement and bad-pressed by the resurgent Trinamul and the bjp, making the 2001 elections his toughest challenge.
As for the opposition, has Basu made it too easy for Mamata Banerjee? The Trinamul leader's graceless remarks—"He is running away, even as people have been devastated by floods and the state itself ruined under him is 23 years. I would rather have him contest the polls"—hurt her own image more than Basu's. Not everyone thinks that a Trinamul/bjp election victory is imminent unless Chakravarty splits the party, especially after Mamata's "resignation" over petro price increases and her open encouragement to road encroachers in Calcutta. In case the cpi(m) can avert a pre-poll split, the LF can still win the 2001 polls with a reduced majority.