CPI-M will win, but by a narrow margin: Biman Bose
Alimuddin Street, off Lower Circular Road, one of the busiest thoroughfares in Kolkata, is more a Byzantine lane, cobbled in parts, than a street. Decrepit, nondescript houses with peeling paint and leaning balconies crowd in from both sides. The walls of most of the houses are blackish-green, with moss growing on the surface and banyan saplings peeping out of crevices. It has been drizzling since morning and the moist air is redolent with the smell of decay.
Finding Number 31, Alimuddin Street, is not a difficult task. A slight bend in the alley hides the Communist Party of India-Marxist's headquarters in West Bengal, Muzaffar Ahmed Bhawan, from sight. It's the building next to Taj Leather Works at 30/1, Alimuddin Street, with a wide gate open to all. It's mid-morning and the ground floor wears a deserted look; in the foyer a plainclothes policeman casually looks up as I enter, eyebrows raised in an unspoken question.
"I am here to meet Biman Bose," I tell the elderly comrade reading that morning's Ganashakti at a ramshackle table which passes for a reception desk. Without taking his eyes off the party daily, he points to the staircase. Yes, of course, I am no stranger to this building.On the second floor the person who manages the office, a middle-aged comrade with neatly combed hair and in a starched shirt, takes my visiting card, asks me to sit on the wooden bench meant for visitors, and leaves the room to check with the CPI-M state secretary, the party boss and Left Front chairman, whether he will meet me.
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First published in The Pioneer. Reproduced with kind courtesy of The Pioneer and Kanchan Gupta
Image: Biman Bose
'Bimanda is busy in a meeting'
A short while later he returns to tell me that "Bimanda is busy in a meeting, he has asked you to come for the press conference at 5.30 in the evening after which he will meet you." But, of course, it's polling day in Kolkata and it's only natural that he should be busy.
I return in the evening. Alimuddin Street is chock-a-block with OB vans and the ground floor of Muzaffar Ahmed Bhawan is teeming with mediapersons. At quarter past five everybody marches up the stairs to a room on the first floor which is used for briefing the media.
The chairs are new, or comparatively new, but everything else in the room is antiquated. The walls, which haven't seen a fresh coat of paint for a long, long time, are adorned with large framed prints, sepia with age, of Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, Vladimir Ilych Lenin and Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin, each one of them staring down at us sternly, unsmilingly.
Image: Biman with WB Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee
Inside Muzaffar Ahmed Bhawan
Strangely enough, there are no portraits of Indian Communist leaders. Harkishan Singh Surjeet's presence is recorded through a mass-produced calendar printed in Kerala. A small obituary notice, clipped from a newspaper, of Subhash Chakraborty, whose crowd mobilising abilities the party must be sorely missing in this election, is pasted on the wall in a corner.
The table where Biman Bose, popularly known simply as 'Bimanda', would be sitting to brief us is scarred and chipped, the polish long gone. Behind the chair hangs a large map of world, fraying at the edges, the print and boundaries of countries long faded.
From where I am sitting, the map appears to be of 1970s vintage when the Soviet Empire straddled most of the world. On one side hangs a portrait of Lenin, on the other of Stalin. In the middle there's a fine framed print of Ho Chi Minh. A sooty trail of cobwebs stretches from one end to another, swaying gently in the breeze blowing in through the large windows.
Bimanda arrives, looking fresh, without a trace of the busy day he has had, tracking every constituency, every polling station in Kolkata and North and South 24 Parganas. He has a sheet of paper crammed with voter-turnout statistics which he rattles off. Next he cites stray incidents of violence, nothing much to write home about. The evening azaan begins at the local masjid; Bimanda puts a finger to his lips and silence descends in the room. Azaan over, some banal questions are asked and desultorily replied. The press conference is over and Bimanda tells the gathered mediapersons to go home, take a hot water shower and sleep peacefully as "all is well and there's nothing to worry about".
A very cordial, very interesting conversation
Everybody leaves to file the story; I hang around, hoping Bimanda hadn't forgotten that he had promised to meet me after the briefing.
No, he hadn't. Bimanda has two minor vices -- he drinks huge quantities of black tea and smokes a large number of cigarettes. He asks me if I have had tea, lights a cigarette, takes a deep drag, looks for an ashtray, and then settles down for what I had expected to be a brief interview but turns out to be a very long, very cordial, very interesting conversation.
The last I had met him was during the 2009 general election campaign.
There was much catching up to do but I need not have bothered. Bimanda, like his predecessor Anil Biswas, keeps tracks of those whom he thinks are worth keeping track of. I feel both humbled and honoured.
'We will form the 8th Left Front government'
Much of what we talked about must remain unpublished, largely because it would be of little interest to readers. But here are some portions of the conversation that could be of interest:
The common perception is that the Left Front, more so the CPI-M, is set for a historic defeat, that too at the hands of the Trinamool Congress
I can say it for sure that we will form the eighth Left Front government. There is no doubt about it we will retain power and that's the reality
That seems a bit tough, going by the mood and popular wisdom.
I don't know about others, but I am confident that we shall form the government. Perhaps not with the majority of 2006 (when the CPI-M alone had won a near two-thirds majority with 176 seats) but it will be closer to the results of 2001 (when the party won 143 seats and had to depend on its allies for a majority in the assembly).
Image: A Left Front rally
'You are seeing the surge, but not the counter-surge'
Look at the surge of support for Mamata Banerjee and the Trinamool Congress
You are seeing the surge, but not the counter-surge. We are mobilising each of our supporters, our voters, to come out on polling day (during each phase of the election). In the 2009 Lok Sabha election, they (the Trinamool Congress-Congress alliance) got 11 lakh votes more than us (the Left Front). Since then we have been working to cover the difference 11 lakh votes is not a lot. We have done an extensive review of where and why we failed (in the 2009 election) and we have undertaken rectification within the party at the political as well as the organisational level.
We have reviewed the method of our work (at the grassroots level) we have identified individual leaders and cadre who have let the party down and taken action against them we have expelled many of them. Without saying it publicly, we have not renewed the membership of thousands of our cadre. The effects of these steps are now beginning to show.
Image: File photo of Mamata Bannerjee
'Arrogance has reduced to a great extent'
And how has the method of your working changed since 2009?
Take for example our election campaign strategy. Earlier, it was the 'monologue system' -- leaders would just talk to the people. This time we adopted the 'dialogue system'. We went out and listened to the people and we learned a lot. You know, to learn something new, you have to unlearn what you know. We did that.
That is yielding us good dividends. We switched over to the 'monologue system' just before the elections, taking our message to the voters. There's something else we tried this time: We went to the people to collect election funds. We conducted a door-to-door campaign, asking people to give us whatever they could afford. We also collected money on the streets we asked our sympathisers to contribute one day's wages It's amazing, you know, the amount we have collected in some districts. But more than collecting money, our purpose was to involve the people (he uses the word 'manush', which most Marxists have forgotten) and that purpose has been served.
Many of the people I have spoken to in the past few days say what has turned them off the CPI-M is the arrogance of the party cadre and leaders.
I agree, arrogance (he uses the quaint expression 'arrogancy') has been a problem. But arrogance has reduced to a great extent. You will find that there is no 'arrogancy' in (the party) in future.
Image: File photo of the Writers' Building, the secretariat building of the state government
'Exposed. They are all exposed'
What about governance issues? People seem to be quite bothered about the quality of governance...
It's a question of whose governance is better, ours or theirs. (We versus them, aamra and oraa, aamader and oder, are a common refrain in this election.) Look at the municipalities they control (after last year's civic elections). They are in a mess. It's the same story in the panchayats. At the block level They (the Trinamool Congress) control two zilla parishads. Their performance record is so bad that I can't explain it (in words) khaali khaao-khaao (just eat-eat, a colloquial expression for smash-and-grab). They are exposed, at the village level, the block level, the district level.
How is that any different from (Bimanda lights another cigarette, takes a deep puff, and waves my intervention aside in a cloud of smoke. I use the opportunity to light a cigarette, take a deep puff, and wait for him to continue.)
Exposed. They are all exposed. The people (he again uses the word 'manush') have realised they are not a better lot. They have no policy, no principles. Others have a structured party organisation (aah, the Party, at last!) with cadre and leaders. But they have only one thing -- one leader. Can you tell me the names of the six Trinamool Congress ministers in the Union government? But we all know the name of the railways minister!
Image: A Left Front rally in Kolkata
'We and BJP are the only ones talking about corruption'
Let's get back to governance and development...
Yes, let's do. I wanted to tell you something. West Bengal has been adjudged the fourth best state by the Centre in rural development. The best state is Kerala, the second best is Karnataka, followed by Sikkim and then West Bengal. This is despite the terrible performance of the Trinamool Congress in the two districts they control -- East Midnapore and South 24-Parganas -- and the indifferent record of the Congress in the two districts they control -- Malda and North Dinajpur.
Actually, the Congress's performance hasn't been too bad, at least they have been doing something. But they (oraa)? They have only been obstructing development work.
I find it striking that nobody seems to be bothered about price rise and corruption...
You are wrong. The people (the 'manush' word again!) are concerned, they are seething with anger about corruption, they are angry with the rise in food prices. But they are silent about it, they are not talking about it at all.
It is ironical that we and the BJP are the only ones talking about corruption and price rise. The Left and the Right are talking about these two issues, but the rest, the Trinamool Congress and the Congress, they are not talking about them.
Image: File photo of Buddhadeb on election rally
'We do not endorse vulgar speech. But look what Mamata has been talking'
The Left and the Right are together on this (Bimanda ignores my comment.) Tell me about the extremely distasteful statements by some of your senior leaders about Mamata.
We do not endorse vulgar speech. One of our senior leaders (former MP Anil Bose) said objectionable things and we reprimanded him, asked him for an explanation. Nobody has ever done this before.
But look at what she (he does not name Mamata Banerjee) has been saying. At one rally she said, "Aamra goonda control kori" (We control goondas). And then she added, "Goonda dhukiye debo" (We will shove the goondas).
I don't want to say anything more, I find it extremely distasteful, but we all know what she meant by that (about shoving the goondas). Siddhartha Shankar Ray used to control goondas. And now we have her controlling goondas. (His allusion is to the lawless years when Ray was chief minister in the early-1970s.)
Image: Mamata addressing a public rally
'Meet me on May 15; I will remind you of what I told you today'
Do you still wash your clothes and iron them too?
I still wash my clothes my panjabi and dhuti. But I don't iron them myself anymore. I find it too stressful and start sweating. Look, I own nothing, I live a Spartan life. (He lives at the party office and has his meals there.) The party gives me Rs 1,600 per month. That is more than enough. I don't have a bank account. Neither does Buddha (Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee). He donates the salary which he gets from the government to the party, and the party gives him some money -- he gets a bit more than me because he has a family -- every month. I think it's Rs 5,000. And we both are happy.
Let me tell you a funny story. I was invited to visit Canada, but the Canadian High Commission wouldn't give me a visa because I don't have a bank account!
Thank you for your time, Bimanda.
Meet me on the 15th (of May) and I will remind you of what I told you today: We are going to form the eighth Left Front government.
Outside Muzaffar Ahmed Bhawan, darkness of the night has descended and a pleasant breeze is blowing. We shan't know of the direction of that breeze till the votes are counted on May 13.
First published in The Pioneer. Reproduced with kind courtesy of The Pioneer and Kanchan Gupta
Image: Biman Bose at a public rally being addressed by Buddhadeb