Calcutta, Feb. 5: Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee today succeeded in forcing Citu to roll back the first 48-hour strike in Bengal in nearly half a century, reverting to a position from which adversities dislodged him and making a political point against one of the "fossilised" ideas that drive the CPM.
The two-day general shutdown on February 20 and 21 has been reduced to a one-day affair confined to the first day, Bengal Citu president Shyamal Chakraborty announced today. The second day's protest has been converted into an industrial strike during which public transport and "other things" would remain normal, he added.
The landmark retreat came less than 24 hours after former chief minister Bhattacharjee told ABP Ananda in an interview: "We have told the central trade unions to seriously rethink about Bengal. We have told them that on February 21, there will not be any bandh in Bengal. We will observe Bhasha Divas."
Bhasha Divas promotes awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and traces its roots to the death of students at the hands of Pakistani security forces in Dhaka during the Bengali Language Movement in 1952.
The rethink on the nation-wide strike ' called by 11 central trade unions ' is a watershed, pointed out a CPM veteran, as the party has never gone back on its call for a strike. Traditionalists in the party regard bandhs as the most potent tool to uphold the cause of the working class and to boost the morale of the cadre when they are down.
Asked whether schools and colleges would be allowed to function on February 21, the state Citu president said: "It will be an industrial strike on February 21. So, other things will remain normal."
Although the Left is still supporting a one-day strike, Bhattacharjee has managed a partial victory by forcing the party wings to cut short the duration of the general shutdown.
The former chief minister is considered inherently opposed to the idea of crippling normal life. He belongs to a section of CPM leaders which feels that the party ought to advocate what is good for Bengal and not what is good for Alimuddin Street alone.
Some similarities do exist between the stands of chief minister Mamata Banerjee and Bhattacharjee on bandhs in the sense that both have turned their back on shutdowns.
Mamata ' who had last called a 12-hour bandh on February 6, 2008 ' has also publicly renounced disruptive politics and said that she preferred other forms of protests over total shutdown.
A key difference is Mamata's line against bandhs began crystallising when she was within striking distance of power and the stand got more pronounced in government. Besides, her penchant to declare holidays has ensured that work culture takes a back seat.
But Bhattacharjee has chosen to speak out when he is in Opposition ' a slot where parties usually find bandhs handy to torment the government of the day.
In power, Bhattacharjee had spoken out against the party's addiction to bandhs. During an interaction organised by industry body Assocham on August 26, 2008, he had drawn a huge round of applause for his promise to bring an end to strikes.
"Personally if you ask me, I think it (strike) is not helping us, our country. But unfortunately, as I belong to one party, and they call strikes, I keep mum. But I have finally decided that next time I will open my mouth," the then chief minister had said.
Party sources said that a series of electoral defeats since the 2008 panchayat polls prevented Bhattacharjee from delivering on his promise.
Instead, he was forced to apologise for his anti-strike statements during the party's state conference last February amid demands from a section in the party for stern action against him.
Under the CPM constitution, involvement in breaking a strike may lead to summary expulsion from the party.
Making the apology a thing of the past, Bhattacharjee seems to have regained his anti-strike stand as he has assumed the role of the chief campaigner of the CPM ahead of the rural polls.
Sources in the CPM said going ahead with the two-day general strike was not possible for Citu as the former chief minister took a tough stand.
"Buddhada is leading the party's campaign for the upcoming panchayat polls and industrialisation is one of the major themes in his speeches. Industrialisation and strikes are self-contradictory and there is no way he can support bandhs, and that too on two consecutive days," said a senior CPM leader.
"As the head of a government, a lot of politically correct statements have to be made…. But the fact that the former chief minister is retaining his stand even as an Opposition leader raises hope that we may actually see a change in Bengal," said a city-based industrialist.
He, however, added that shunning strikes alone would not bring about the desired change in Bengal.
Bhattacharjee's statement during the interview was in response to a question from author Samaresh Majumdar ' his senior in the erstwhile Presidency College ' who asked him whether he "felt bad" that a strike was called on a day coinciding with Bhasha Divas.
Excerpts of the interview were made public last night. A few hours before the full interview was aired this evening, Citu state president Chakraborty had formally announced the decision to convert the general strike on February 21 into an industrial strike.
Chakraborty's use of the Bhasha Divas excuse for calling off the total shutdown on February 21 revived memories of a similar incident in December 2006 when Christmas preparations gave Mamata a face-saver to turn a two-day strike, on December 21 and 22, into a one-day affair.