Jyoti Basu: A Warm Man Full of Life

Sitaram Yechury

COMRADE Jyoti Basu is no more amongst us. He left us in his 96th year. He was a fighter all his life and even so in his death. His seven decades long political life is synchronous with the evolution of the modern India. For this very reason, he was always a source of inspiration and a role model for the younger generation. His legacy will continue to be such a source. He, truly, was one of the legends of modern India, not only of the communist movement.

Having gone to England to return as a Bar-at-Law, he was attracted to the communist worldview, embraced the ideology and returned to India in 1940 --- not to don the black robes but to plunge directly into the freedom struggle by joining the Communist Party. Karl Marx had once said that when an idea grips the minds of the masses, it becomes a material force. The desire for independence from the British rule had gripped the Indian masses when Jyoti Basu joined the communist movement. He, however, was thinking ahead of what the character and content of independent India should be. The political independence that would be achieved needed to be converted into the true economic independence for every Indian. This meant the creation of a socialist society where exploitation of man by man would simply cease to exist. It was with this passion, which remained undiluted till the end, that he served the Indian people.
During the course of his long and illustrious life, he had to face many trials and tribulations but the commitment to the cause never wavered. He was a role model precisely for this reason: sheer power of his commitment to his convictions.

I first met Comrade Jyoti Basu in 1980 when we had in Calcutta the central executive committee meeting of the Students Federation of India --- the students organisation led by CPI(M). He was in his first term as the chief minister and I had to escort him to the party’s fraction meeting.

The first impression I had was that he had lots of questions to ask about what the younger generation was thinking and doing. It was not usual for him to look after the students’ front. MB (M Basavapunnaiah) was in charge of the SFI but could not go to Calcutta for the meeting. So Jyoti Basu substituted for him.

The 1980 general elections were about to take place and the party’s “July crisis” (inner-party differences on the central leadership’s decision to withdraw support to Morarji Desai and back Charan Singh instead) was still fresh. Therefore, there were lots of questions from the students on the party line.

Although dealing with students was not his normal beat, so to speak, nor was he a member of the central Polit Bureau team, Basu handled the questions very well. I realised then, and saw it many times over the years, that the hallmark of his style was always speaking to the point, businesslike and candidly — clearly stating that many a time we cannot determine the course of events but would have to make a choice between the available options.

During my association with Comrade Jyoti Basu in our party’s Central Committee for over two and a half decades, I saw in him (and other leaders) many admirable qualities that need to be emulated. One is his unassailable faith in the power of reasoning based on the Marxist outlook. No argument can ever be won on the basis of passion or emotions. The other facet of his personality was humaneness.

Another enduring quality of his was the self-imposed discipline with which he conducted his personal and political life. He displayed the rarest of soldier-like quality when his opinion in 1996 to accept the offer to become the prime minister in the United Front government was rejected by a majority of the Central Committee. Subsequently, the party congress at Kolkata in 1998 endorsed the Central Committee majority opinion. Notwithstanding his personal opinion, however, he till the end upheld the majority view and worked steadfastly, discharging his responsibilities. Such steadfast loyalty to the organisational principles of a Communist Party and its strict norms of discipline is a quality that the younger generation needs to emulate.
We (myself and several younger comrades) were invited to the Central Committee in 1984 and took part in many meetings and inner-party discussions. But my personal interaction with Jyoti Basu happened mostly when we were travelling together abroad or in India. I used to accompany him on election campaign tours in the Hindi-speaking states. Although he used to agonise about speaking in Hindi, I must say he made a very sincere effort, much better than most of the younger comrades coming from the non-Hindi states.

During all these years, I had on a few occasions travelled abroad with him, when he held the office of the chief minister for a record 23 years. Being the chief minister of West Bengal, he naturally was entitled to a preferential treatment. But he always preferred to travel with other comrades and, till his last day in office, travelled only in the economy class of Indian Airlines. During such visits, he would always be concerned about the welfare of the other comrades by taking interest in their comforts and needs. I have, for instance, never seen him losing his patience even once!

My first trip abroad with him was to Nepal in 1989. Since he was a state guest, his itinerary included a visit to the Pashupatinath temple. I asked him why he didn’t refuse to go. He then explained to me some basic facts about statecraft. He said that just like India took all visiting dignitaries to Rajghat irrespective of whether they agreed with Gandhi’s philosophy or not, we would have to visit this temple despite being atheists.

My major travels with him were in the late 1980s and early 1990s to the Soviet Union and China --- to understand the developments that eventually led to the disintegration of the USSR. These were invariably five-member delegations led by general secretary Comrade E M S Namboodiripad and including Comrades MB, Harkishan Singh Surjeet and Jyoti Basu, besides myself. My role was essentially to take down notes and ask a question only when permitted to do so.

Comrade Jyoti Basu had had a unique and subtle sense of humour. On one of our trips to Beijing, during dinner Jyotibabu told me, “Sitaram, you are a very dangerous person. With each of us you speak in a different language (in Bengali to Basu, in Telugu to MB, in Tamil to Balanandan and in Hindi to Surjeet). I do not know what tales you carry about us to each other!”

I remember another occasion when we travelled to Cuba. Suddenly, after Jyotibabu had retired for the day, there was a message that “El Commandante” wanted to meet us. Reluctantly, he dressed up and we went to meet Fidel Castro just before midnight. The meeting lasted more than an hour and a half. Fidel was asking a string of questions such as how much coal India produced, how much steel, how much cement, et cetera, et cetera. Jyotibabu muttered under his breath to me in Bengali, “Eki aamar interview nichchhe na ki (Is he taking my interview, or what)?” Then Fidel turned to me and said: “At his age, I don’t expect him to know all these figures. But as a young man, at least you should know them....”

As a measure of respect for Jyoti Basu, Fidel emerged unexpectedly at the airport to see us off. The entire staff was completely taken aback with Fidel’s sudden appearance. Jyotibabu once again turned to me and whispered in Bengali: “Revolution hoye koto bochhor holo (How many years since the revolution took place)?”

I replied: “Chauteesh (thirty-four).”

Pat came his reply: “Ekhono guerrilla tactics bholeni (He still hasn’t forgotten his guerrilla tactics).”

On our way back from Havana, we had to spend some time in Madrid. Jyoti Basu was to be a state guest, not me. Our ambassador asked him in advance whether he wanted to do anything special in Madrid. Jyotibabu in turn asked me and I suggested that we must see Picasso’s Guernica. He conveyed it to the ambassador.

When we reached Madrid, Jyotibabu wasn’t feeling well and did not feel up to driving to the gallery though it was specially kept open for his visit. But he wanted me to go. When I told him the gallery had made an exception only for him, he said: “How will they know who is Jyoti Basu? Just go and see it.”

In Cuba, whether it was at the beach of Varadero or visiting the pubs frequented by Ernest Hemingway or attending the cultural shows Cuba is famous for, the very humane Basu would thoroughly enjoy everything that life had to offer. For all his appearance of being aloof, he was an incredibly warm human being. Jyoti Basu proved through his long life of dedication that it is only a good human being who can be a good communist, and only if you love and live life fully can you contribute to the struggle for the emancipation of humanity.

As we know, till only a few months ago Comrade Basu had been participating with all his vigour and mental alertness in the CPI(M) state secretariat meetings as well as in the Polit Bureau meetings when these took place in Kolkata. Nay, his alertness on occasions made us of the younger generations feel ashamed. Now that he is now no more amongst us, the lack of his advice and his reassuring presence will always be missed by us.

Of course, a fuller evaluation of his role and contribution to the building of the communist movement in India will be made dispassionately. In the immediate aftermath of his physical absence amongst our midst, we feel a sense of great loss and void. He is the last of the original nine-member Polit Bureau to leave us --- the navaratnas who founded the CPI(M) and steered it through very troubling and exacting times. The only homage that we can pay to Comrade Jyoti Basu is by redoubling our resolve to carry forward the struggle for human emancipation and liberty to its logical conclusion.

Lal Salam Comrade Jyoti Basu!

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