“Apart from bringing a dead man back to life, I can do anything.” Thus spake the man whom Prakash Karat and Sitaram Yechury undoubtedly love to hate, particularly now that he has directly challenged their position as ‘mass’ leaders. In typical style, which the people of West Bengal have come to instantly recognise — and sometimes derive huge amusement from — he has asked why CPI(M) Politburo members should not contest elections. Obviously, the question is not as straightforward as it seems. Nothing about Subhas Chakraborty ever is.
For a member of arguably one of India’s most dictatorial political parties, Chakraborty shows surprisingly little hesitation in repeatedly stepping out of his crease and hitting the party line for a six, to use a cricketing analogy. Call him the CPI(M)’s enfant terrible, or call him simply a maverick, he’s a constant source of embarrassment for his party, and a huge deal of entertainment for us, who enjoy watching party leaders squirm as they try to clamber their way out of the holes that their temperamental colleague digs for them.
And the fun lies in the fact that they seem to be able to do nothing about it. I quote here a fairly typical passage that describes Chakraborty’s relationship with his party: “West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has distanced himself from his cabinet colleague and senior CPI(M) leader Subhas Chakraborty, who is facing a police investigation for alleged public outburst against election officials. Meanwhile, the opposition Congress today demanded that CPI(M) should drop Chakraborty as candidate for the forthcoming assembly election.”
That news item is dated 2006, but if you were to replace a few phrases here and there, may just as well have been datelined 2001 (when he described his fellow CPI(M) leaders as a “herd of cattle”) or 2009. And yet, nothing changes. Forget dropping Chakraborty as an election candidate, as the Congress demanded in 2006, the state leaders don’t even dare censure him as he goes on his merry way.
So what makes him such a big deal?
Well, ‘mass base’ is a phrase you will often hear associated with Chakraborty. And it explains much of his influence, though not all of it. Contrary to his rough and ready image in the corridors of power, he is known — always has been — as something of a do gooder in his Assembly constituency of Belgachhia East. Some years ago, I remember meeting Masudur Rahman Baidya, the orthopaedically handicapped swimmer who has conquered the English Channel and Straits of Gibraltar, and who was then aiming to cross all the world’s 12 major channels. Running from pillar to post to secure funds, the double amputee below the knee recalled how ‘Subhas da’ had promised all possible help in his endeavours, and how grateful he was for the gesture.
He has for many years been one of the biggest fundraisers for his party in the state, and there are wild rumours about the fleets of private buses that he reportedly owns. These buses are avidly commercial vehicles, and Chakraborty in his position as state transport minister really has no business running them if he indeed does so, but then, he has never been too fussed about minor matters such as ethics and morality.
Chakraborty’s third pillar of strength is his steadfast devotion to CPI(M) patriarch Jyoti Basu, and the bond between the two has stood the test of time and the ebb and flow of political turmoil. Time and again, Chakraborty has found shelter beneath Basu’s hitherto braod wings after yet another misdemeanour. As recently as last year, when still an influential figure within the party, and immediately after the CPI(M)’s party congress in Coimbatore, Basu had demanded that Chakraborty be included in the CPI-M Politburo as well as state party secretariat. His demand was in direct defiance of the stand taken by Karat, the party’s general secretary, and the latter remained unimpressed, to nobody’s surprise.
However, from all indications, Basu will be increasingly unable to protect his protege, who has now truly hit Karat where it hurts by implying that he does not have the mass base to win an election, and that his student leader experience is pretty much zilch in the rough and tumble of national politics. The irony is, much of the CPI(M)’s power at the Centre derives from the 40-odd Lok Sabha seats that it holds in West Bengal, and more impartial observers than Chakraborty have felt that neither Karat nor Yechury have treated the state with the ‘respect’ that they ought to.
The question now is, what will happen next? By all accounts, the CPI(M) and its Left Front allies will suffer sizeable losses in the just-concluded Lok abha elections in West Bengal, which means the Left leaders will see their strongest negotiating tool weakened at the national level. And with Basu fading out of the picture, Karat & Co will no longer see the need to pussyfoot around Chakraborty. Inevitably, the state leadership has carefully distanced itself from some of Chakraborty’s potentially explosive remarks. About the others, it has remained meaningfully silent.
Has Subhas da finally bitten off more than he can chew? All those of us who have watched him take on one opponent after another — from journalists to Maoists — hurling insults in his trademark East Bengal accent, would lament a reduction in his powers. Love him or hate him, and most of us frankly see little to praise in him, we have been hugely entertained by him. And we have admired his ability to throw a spanner in the works with unfailing regularity. We grinned with delight when he organised the scandalously plebeian Hope 86, laughed when he unabashedly — and untruthfully — took all credit for bringing Diego Maradona to Kolkata recently, and hooted when he defiantly offered puja at Tarapith, which no true Communist would even consider. He single-handedly took on Kolkata’s powerful hawkers and triumphed over them with Operation Sunshine, and openly opposed the subsequently discredited Prasun Mukherjee, erstwhile police commissioner of Kolkata and the government’s ‘unofficial’ candidate for the post of president of the Cricket Association of Bengal.
All of us would love to see this battle run its course — the Page 3 Communist who spends his holidays in Scotland versus the man of the masses. The suave former student leader versus the sweaty, bizarrely dressed street fighter. Perhaps it ain’t all over yet.