When former West Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu anointed Buddhadev Bhattacharya as his successor, people had misgivings about the seemingly aloof home (police) and information and cultural affairs minister. Would the Marquez-reading, Bunuel-watching parvenu be able to reach out to the masses? Six months into his new job, Bhattacharya is smashing every myth.
Even after Basu stepped down in November 2000, it took Bhattacharya some time to find his voice in the government. This prompted Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee- the woman who wants Bhattacharya's job more than anything in the world-to carp, "The state is being run by two chief ministers."
Parallels do exist between the two. Bhattacharya, like Basu, is known to be the liberal face of Marxists. In May 1997, Basu got a shot at being the prime minister. At the central committee meeting which took up the resolution, only two votes cast by the Bengal communists were in favour of the move. One of them was Bhattacharya's. He could see the "historic blunder" coming.
At 56, Bhattacharya is also the young blood in a party of geriatrics. This does create problems. His contemporaries, many of whom are ministers, aren't always willing to listen to him. Even so, in the war for Writers' Buildings, Bhattacharya is just what the doctor ordered. Especially as an antidote to Mamata.
For one, he has a spotless reputation. His humble origins (he studied at a Bengali-medium school), his no-frills lifestyle (he refuses to move out of his 720-sq ft flat) and now his legwork, all match Mamata's. The man who was once uncomfortable with the business community is today mouthing it mantras, talking industry and investments and promising clampdowns on trade unions. Recently, through a slew of circulars, Bhattacharya tried to induce some (short-lived) discipline in government departments by checking expenditure and tardiness.
But Bhattacharya is very much a product of his party, while Mamata has grown through her own charisma-or idiosyncrasies. A few weeks ago, while Congress and Trinamool leaders were negotiating an alliance, Mamata upped and disappeared. She locked herself in a room and was busy playing tunes from Kaho Naa Pyaar Hai on her synthesiser. In her off-white cotton saree, she is the picture of studied simplicity. From publicly "hanging" herself in the 1980s to inviting Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to her security-challenged two-room house a year ago, there's no attention-grabber quite like "Didi". At 46, Mamata is a firm believer in the politics of gimmickry and has punctuated her three-decade career with stunts.
Yet, her supporters have cut through the slack of well-publicised exhibitionism to now look upon Mamata as the only serious alternative to 24 years of Left Front rule. No doubt the woman who was once "driven out" of the Congress has worked hard to get where she is. Today, Mamata is being wooed by the high command of her former party, marginalising local Congresswallahs like Somen Mitra.
Mamata is everything a challenger should be: populist, irreverent and anti-establishment. But her stubbornness and volatile temperament could cost her heavily. Her sudden decision to break her two-year relationship with the BJP just weeks shy of the polls is a case in point. But then she likes walking the tightrope. Will Bhattacharya give her right of way?