Once perpetually pursed in arrogance or supreme confidence, his lips tremble as he speaks now. The face, so famously contemptuous of the opposition's 35 seats to the Left Front's 235, now reflects visible signs of age. The white hair has lost its sheen. Comrades never retire, so an ailing Buddhadeb Bhattacharya still drags his infirm frame from his Palm Avenue residence to the party office on Alimuddin Street.
Once the cynosure of all eyes, the former Chief Minister of West Bengal has become bit of a recluse.
But even in his eremitical existence, the CPIM patriarch was still sharp enough to understand that on its own, the decimated, dejected Left Front had not a hope in seven hells to mount a challenge against the ruling Trinamool Congress. And the septuagenarian ideologue was still crafty enough to convince the party's inflexible politburo to form an unprecedented alliance with the Congress for the 2016 Assembly elections.
Though an existential threat necessitated the coming together of two forces on the verge of obliteration, that the Left Front-Congress alliance has quickly shaken off its initial apologetic awkwardness and now looks to take the fight to an increasingly edgy TMC owes in no small measure to the man who engineered it in the first place.
Even in his infirmity, Bhattacharya has been the alliance's technical director. The silent puppeteer of Left Front's campaign. Pulling invisible strings to cobble together a force that can match and give Mamata Banerjee a run for her money. But all along, even while correcting campaign speeches or drawing up electoral strategies, the former Chief Minister had remained a shadowy figure in Alimuddin's backroom.
Not anymore though.
On Tuesday, as dusk fell on a city under the yoke of merciless heat, an old red sun rose in its south as an ailing, 72-year-old comrade brought Kolkata streets to a screeching halt, triggering a tidal wave of scarlet so ferocious that it seemed to have taken even the man who was at the centre of it, by surprise.
It took Bhattacharya's open-hooded jeep nearly four hours to traverse an eight-km stretch from Dhakuria Bus Stand to Garia More because his 'roadshow' in favour of three CPIM candidates was swept away by a tsunami of people.
A surging, impromptu, restless crowd of nearly 25,000 marched along, cheering and solganeering away while people waved from windows, balconies or simply lined up the streets with some youngsters fishing out mobile phones to capture selfies. The number of young in the parade, which grew as the convoy went past Jadavpur University campus, indicated that many students had also joined in.
At times it became difficult to believe that five years back in 2011, Bhattacharya became the state's only second sitting Chief Minister after Congressman Prafulla Chandra Sen to suffered an electoral defeat.
Two more things were noticeable. One, for a regimented party like the CPIM where even the workers' smiles are synchronized, Tuesday's rally marked a crucial departure. The indiscipline, impulsiveness and plain enthusiasm among the cadres and party workers, clad in red caps, red tees and waving red flags, was hard to miss.
Denim-clad youngsters and women led the procession, a decision which apparently was part of a plan. "This was a conscious decision. We want to convey to people that these sections will be decision-makers. Both Satarup (Ghosh) and Madhusa (Sen Roy) represent the youth," the Times of India quoted a CPIM leader as saying. Ghosh and Sen Roy, along with Sujan Chakraborty are the leaders in favour of whom Bhattacharya had taken part in the roadshow.
Second, around 200 Congress flag-bearers were also part of the roadshow, a situation unthinkable even at the start of the year. It indicated that the alliance is working. This, more than anything else, has increased TMC's blood pressure whose chief, the incumbent Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, let slip her anxiety while addressing a rally on Tuesday in Howrah's Sankrail, asking supporters not to be worried or scared about rivals because TMC will return to power on 19 May.
Even though the veteran leader didn't go beyond uttering an unlikely "inquilab" a couple of times, the thousands who marched along frequently broke into "Gali gali mein shor hai, Trinamool chor hai" or "poriborton er e ki moja, shilpa shudhu telebhaja (what a wonderful change it is where only industry is one of roadside fried fritters). It left even cynical comrades with a smile.
But crucial questions remain. After Tuesday's successful rally, the CPIM has apparently revised its earlier stance and now plans to field their ace weapon in a few more rallies in the run up to the remaining three electoral phases. Bhattacharya, who has been consciously avoiding all calls for active campaigning citing ill health, may relent.
It points to a serious lack of charismatic personalities amid the alliance fold in general and CPIM in particular. If the party has to fall back on a visibly unwell veteran — who amid even Tuesday's all-pervasive enthusiasm looked a little bemused and detached — to inspire its rank and file, it doesn't speak too highly of the current leaders.
It is clear, even more so after Tuesday, that no one including the alliance's chief ministerial candidate Surya Kanta Mishra can match the former Chief Minister in terms of personal appeal or magnetism and the septuagenarian Bhattacharya remains CPIM's sole crowd-puller to take on the still considerable might of Mamata Banerjee. The roadshow may have gladdened the hearts of comrades but it should worry them even more.
The Left Front may be making a mistake if it believes that the outpouring of emotion in Tuesday's rally, vociferous as it was, is an iron-cast signal for resurgence. Even in his stunning defeat from Jadavpur in 2011, an area his convoy crossed amid much fanfare on Tuesday, Bhattacharya remains a popular figure in Bengal politics. His appeal had no doubt taken a beating, but the reticent leader who was hardly seen in public sphere since the reverse suffered by Left Front had been the Chief Minister for 11 years (2000-2011) and still inspires curiosity. The scramble to take a selfie with him may not translate into votes.
Young generation needs young leaders. Buddhababu may still be the CPIM's best batsman, but at the twilight of his political career the leader who led Left Front to their first defeat in three decades and got himself bruised in the process, may not be the answer the alliance is looking for.
First Published On : Apr 20, 2016 15:44 IST