Buddhadeb Bhattacharya has no time to read books these days. Busy with the election campaign, West Bengal's chief minister is touring the northern parts of the state before the fourth and fifth phase of the election.
"The literary self of mine has gone on leave for the moment," he said.
Incessant campaigning has taken its toll on the Marxist veteran as was evident from a sore throat and a newly acquired tan. Clad in his trademark dhoti and kurta, the chief minister lacked neither enthusiasm nor clarity while speaking his mind to rediff.com
In an exclusive interview to Features Editor Indrani Roy Mitra at Siliguri's circuit house, Bhattacharya discussed the future of West Bengal, the problems that plague the state and his policy of neo-Communism among other issues.
The election campaign must be very hectic. How do you take care of your health?
Frankly, I have no time to think about myself. This election is a huge battle, a mission for us that we must win. My health has taken a backseat now. I am only concentrating on the election agenda, campaign etc. It's a tough journey.
Are you happy with the Election Commission's measures in the state?
I am neither happy nor unhappy. The Commission is doing its work, I am doing mine. I was 'interrogated' and provoked to badmouth the EC by a very aggressive journalist. In a television interview, he repeatedly asked if I were insulted by the EC's decision to hold election in five phases in West Bengal. My answer was: I have no problem.
My team is as comfortable playing a one-dayer as well as a five-day match. To his statement about the EC sending troops to West Bengal, my response was: the EC is welcome to send more troops. I have no problem regarding that.
What changes should we expect if the Left Front returns to power?
Changes started setting in long back. Once we return to power, we have to consolidate our success in the field of agriculture. That means we have to move from agriculture to agro business. As far as industries are concerned, manufacturing or otherwise, we have to improve our infrastructure to attract more investment.
Improving infrastructure is absolutely essential for the state's economic growth. We have initiated systematic studies to focus on road connectivity and building a logistic hub. For the latter, we have started working in tandem with Singapore companies. I am trying my best to maintain the momentum that has been built in the state's industrial sector.
In education, we are in a state of expansion from the primary to secondary level. New schools and colleges are coming up. We are focusing primarily on improving the quality of education.
What steps need to be taken to make West Bengal a hot economic destination?
We have to stress on everything -- agriculture, industry, trade, education, science and culture.
If we aim to make our state a hot economic destination, the sky should be the limit.
What can be done to stop the inflow of migrants from Bangladesh? How dangerous is it?
It is a serious problem which started with Independence and got a major boost after (then Prime Minister) Indira Gandhi signed the migration treaty with then Bangladeshi President (Sheikh) Mujibur Rahman in the early 1970s. It is a very serious issue and we are trying our best to counter it.
Actually this problem should be handled by the central government. For, we are talking about an international border protected by the Border Security Force. I am in constant touch with the Centre about this issue. I make it a point to bring it up during my talks with the home minister and the prime minister.
When I met Dr Manmohan Singh in March, I told him: 'Enough is enough. The migrants should be told in no uncertain terms what we want.' But sadly, the problem still exists.
What is being done to curb the Naxalite resurgence? Is it not a grim indictment of the Left Front's failure to improve rural conditions? Could it pose a threat like the late 1960s and early 1970s?
The resurgence of the Naxalite movement now has nothing to do with the earlier movement which started from Naxalbari. There is not a single Naxalite leader from the old era.
The sole prominent figure of the former movement, whom I am in touch with, happens to be Kanubabu(Kanu Sanyal). I interact with him regularly. Both of us criticise the Naxalites' past policies, and those of the present-day Maoists.
In the 1970s, we defeated the Naxalites politically and ideologically though we were not in the government then. The so-called Naxalite leaders today are influenced by the old ideas and principles of Mao Zedong. I don't think they have read Mao though. They (the Naxalites) hail from Andhra, Orissa and parts of Jharkhand and attempt to penetrate parts of West Bengal.
I don't think the resurgence is caused by socio-economic factors alone. If you remember when the Khalistan movement started in Punjab, the state had the highest per capita income. A lot of money came into the state from Punjabis settled abroad. This is one aspect of a particular movement.
In Orissa and Andhra Pradesh, people had some grievances because the government's land reforms and tribal policies were far from satisfactory. The case of West Bengal is totally different. We have been able to implement land reforms successfully.
Now the question is: What do the Naxalites here ask for? They do not want us to construct roads or to conduct health camps. I see no logic in their demands. They don't have any socio-economic programme. All they want is to kill the police and the CPI-M. It is absurd.
The Naxalites have chosen Jharkhand as their main area of operation. When we chase them, they go and seek refuge in that state. They cannot hold meetings and conventions in our areas. They have secret meetings in and around their hideouts instead.
I was having a discussion with (CPI-M Politburo member) Sitaram Yechury on the problem (in Nepal) a while ago. It is almost final that the Maoists are going to join mainstream politics soon. They will come to attend this constituent assembly (in Nepal). If the Maoists join mainstream politics, one can well imagine what the outcome will be. It is sheer madness.
What about the mushrooming of madrassas in the state?
I am aware of the increasing number of madrassas. But I want to take a positive stand on the issue. We are appealing to the minority community attending and running the madrassas to get affiliated to a central madrassa board.
We tell them: 'We have no problem with you teaching the Koran. But you should also teach English, mathematics, computers. Upgrade yourselves or else your future will be at stake.'
Your attempts to usher in economic reforms have met with opposition within your party. How do you plan to overcome this?
It is not a serious problem at all. We are having healthy debates among ourselves. Be it China or Vietnam, a debate is always on. We are always arguing and debating on foreign direct investment, special economic zone, IT sector and many other things. But there is no animosity. We, the party members, discuss things to arrive at a solution.
Talking about Vietnam and China, they are the two fastest growing economies in Asia. Do you see West Bengal in that light?
In West Bengal, we cannot follow a particular model. But talking of economic development, what Vietnam has achieved is amazing and definitely inspiring.
I went to Ho Chi Minh city 16 years back and revisited the place this March. I was astounded by the changes that have taken place. It is attracting the maximum amount of FDIs among the South Asian countries.
During my last visit, it looked more or less like Kolkata but this time it looked as swanky as any European city. I was speechless. One definitely needs to take the cue from Vietnam's growth.
Why does the anti-incumbency factor not work against the Left Front despite a tepid record? Critics say it is because of muscle power.
The problem with the critics is that they do not understand the situation of the state. What is unique about West Bengal is that we have got tremendous response and support from the people in previous elections. Now is the time to explore the reasons.
Social and political correlation of forces in rural areas, where more than 65 per cent of the population lives, has undergone a sea change because of land reforms.
We don't deny that there are persistent problems. Roads in some district are in very poor condition, 20 per cent of the districts do not have electricity though we have surplus power. Some districts have acute problems of drinking water. These are anti-incumbency factors. We are constantly trying to counter them, always looking for ways to improve.
But even then one cannot deny benefits of land reforms and their long-term impact on the farmers. Last year, total production stood at 16 million metric tonnes, this year it is 117 million metric tonnes, generating a huge surplus. Therefore, it is the land reforms, not muscle power doing the rounds.
Does the poet and playwright Buddhadeb Bhattacharya get any time to read books and recite poems these days?
(Sighs) The literary part of me has gone on leave, thanks to this election. There is no time to read literature. My life now has a single mission -- Election 2006.