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The Marquez loving Communist

Soutik Biswas | 10:49 UK time, Friday, 8 May 2009

Buddhadev BhattacharyaThese days, Buddhadev Bhattacharyya is translating a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel into his native language, Bengali. This when he finds time after his onerous duties as the head of the world's longest running democratically elected Communist government in India's West Bengal state. This is the third Marquez novel he is translating; the one he worked on last was Clandestine in Chile. Bhattacharyya is also raving about the writings of Jose Saramago, the Portuguese Communist and Nobel-prize winning author. "Have you read Blindness?" he asks, when I meet him on warm summer morning in Kolkata. "It's amazing."

Mr Bhattacharyya is an unusual apparatchik. Years ago, he was derided by his critics as a "tinpot Stalinist" for his stuffy, impervious ways and a rather hostile relationship with the media. He had told me then that the journalists had "misunderstood" him, his eyes welling up. Today, he courts the media with a flourish, talks openly about the mistakes made by Communists in the past, and about the need for both foreign and domestic investment to bring more jobs to his state.

We are sitting with him in a large functional room in Kolkata's Communist party headquarters located on a sliver of a lane, not far away from the place where Mother Teresa lived and worked. Portraits of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Ho Chin Minh adorn its pale white walls. A rather sharp bust of Lenin looks down over a heap of undistributed party literature stacked on the floor and a bin overflowing with cigarette butts and paper tea cups. The room brings back a flood of memories; of the many afternoons spent listening to the apparatchiki holding forth on dialectical materialism, the dictatorship of the proletariat and other Marxist arcana over a regular supply of lemon tea.

Mr Bhattacharyya is 65, and an archetypal Bengali. He speaks softly, but he is argumentative. Like a good Bengali, he loves food, reminiscing about the "oh, so tasty and hot" crab soup in a coconut he had in Hanoi to a colleague from our Vietnamese service. He also writes plays with mixed results, and is a film buff. A month ago, he says, he saw an old Michael Moore film on downsizing. "Amazing," he says, again. He is also a hard working Communist.A demonstration against acquisition of land for industry

Mr Bhattacharyya is a spirited defender of his much-maligned state, which in the past had been crippled by reckless trade unionism, flight of capital and deindustrialisation. He goes looking for positives. Bengal's four per cent farm growth rate, he says, is the highest in India. The state is India's rice bowl, and among its top vegetable producers. And, as many Communist leaders love to point out, there are no instances of farmers committing suicides here, unlike other parts of the country.

But for the last year or so, Mr Bhattacharyya's mission to industrialise this primarily rural state appears to have run aground, after stiff resistance by a section of farmers. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) initiated far-reaching land reforms here after it took power in 1977; today, Mr Bhattacharyya says, 84% of the farmlands in Bengal belong to the poor and marginal farmers. The people, in return, gave a near blank cheque to the Communists to rule over their lives.

I ask him where he goes from here. If the farmers are refusing to part with their land, how do factories come up and provide the jobs that Bengal so desperately needs?

He begins with a careful explanation of land use in the state, and the dilemma facing the government.

Some 63% of the total land here belongs to farmers, Mr Bhattacharya says. Bengal is also immensely fertile - only one percent of its land is fallow, compared to the national average of 11% for fallow land. Another 13% of the land is covered by forests that cannot be touched. Existing industry and urban agglomerations make up the rest of the land. Communists appear to be in love with numbers.

"So this is the land situation," Mr Bhattacharyya says. "We have to buy some of the 63% of the farmlands to set up factories. We have to persuade the farmers, give them good compensation and rehabilitation."

But Bengal, he says, needs a tiny amount of that farmland to industrialise. The state has over 10 million acres of farmlands. For new factories to come up, the government needs just 100,000 acres, he says.

"We have come out with a concept of creating this 'land bank' out of four districts in the state. We have to provide food security to farmers, make sure we don't buy very fertile lands."The abandoned Nano factory in Singur

So fears about land grabbing by the government are exaggerated, Mr Bhattacharya suggests. He rubbishes the idea of Bengal becoming an industrial wasteland with investors running away after the fiasco over the car factory in Singur.

"Seven steel plants are coming up in the state. Many of them are land bought from farmers. There has been no resistance there. In fact, some farmers gave a red salute to a businessman who has opened one plant!"

Did he feel let down by the departure of the Tata-owned Nano factory after protests at the site, led by his feisty rival, a gutsy, rabble rousing regional woman politician called Mamata Banerjee?

"I tried my best to keep them back. But the irresponsible and destructive opposition forced them to leave," Mr Bhattacharyya says.

"The Tatas have left. But I have not given up".

He says he is talking to a Chinese automobile company to set up a factory on the abandoned Nano site. And he is is going ahead with a petrochemical complex in another part of the state. He is talking to the Vietnamese to set up "artificial hatcheries for crabs and fish". Bengal, he says, is already the largest single foreign direct investment destination for Japan. Things are not that bad.

It is time for Mr Bhattacharyya to leave for work at the red-brick colonial Writers Buildings in downtown Kolkata.

"I joined the government 32 years ago as a young man. Now I am an old man," he chuckles.

"But I understand that old Leftist dogmas do not work today. We need investments, we need capital. At the same time, the market economy cannot be omnipotent. Look at what is happening in the West. Capitalism is not the last chapter in human history."

Mr Bhattacharyya and his party are possibly facing the toughest elections in Bengal in a long time, as many people here openly talk about a need for change. But in the womb of the Communist party headquarters, he is relaxed and convivial. "Don't forget to read Saramago," he says, before disappearing down a corridor to meet waiting fellow comrades. "The Stone Raft is particularly good!"


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