Shadowing the veteran communist for 33 years till his last on January 17, 2010, Jyoti Basu’s confidential assistant Joykrishna Ghosh has been witness to some rare occasions that gives a measure of the man. Ghosh tells them to TIMES OF INDIA .
Like many of our generation I got attracted to Left politics in my student days. Leaders like Jyoti Basu and Harekrishna Konar were then the main crowd pullers. Konar was an agitator. He used to rouse emotions. Basu, on the other hand, was a good communicator and sounded like a man speaking to men. I listened to them from a distance.
The first occasion when I got see Basu closely was just a chance. My elder brother Harekrishna Ghosh called me one day, while I was studying law, and asked me to look after the CPM leaders who had come for a secret politburo meeting in 1973. Those were the days of semi-fascist terror. The party decided to hold the meeting at a house in Salt Lake (BD-249), because it was a less populated place then. The members including Basu stayed there for four days while I looked after their food and accommodation. Everything went fine except the mosquito bites that became unbearable during the night. I had not arranged for the mosquito nets. Leaders started grumbling as they could not sleep in the night. I saw Basu lying on the bed with his eyes shut but hands moving to minimise the bites. Pramode Dasgupta lost his cool the next day. He shouted at me and asked to get in touch with my brother. I was unnerved. Basu came to my rescue. "He has done his best. Poor fellow, he forgot to bring the mosquito nets," Basu said. I felt assured and arranged for the mosquito nets in the evening.
After the meeting was over, I returned to my daily routine and never came so close to Basu till I got a call from his political secretary Sankar Gupta days after the Left Front government came to power in 1977. I was a little apprehensive. So when Sankar Gupta led me to the chief minister’s chamber, Basu could read my mind. "Sit here. Are you okay?" Basu said, pointing to the chair opposite to him. "This is a difficult assignment. People come to Writer’s with lots of problems. Try your best to solve them. If you can’t, tell them why you couldn’t. Some will try to lure you, mislead you. Take care that you do not lose your cool. You are the face of the government to them. Whenever in difficulty, feel free to come straight to me," Basu said. I felt assured with his last sentence which I believe kept me working with him for all these years.
Two things that was a lesson for me was his respect for people and punctuality. Soon after I became his CA, I went him to a party meeting in Malda. We boarded the New Jalpaiguri Passenger. All through the journey he reminisced his days in Railway Workmen’s Union in the late forties. "There was no bridge that you see now. I used to board a steamer to cross the river. Our trade union was not recognised then. The coolies used to pushed me inside the third class compartment through the window, and I used to sleep in the berth putting my suitcase under my head. One day the suitcase was stolen. Later, when the union got recognition, I used to get the railway pass," he said. We reached Malda at 5.30 in the morning and went straight to the Circuit House. Basu asked me to arrange for the breakfast for he had some assignments. When I entered the dining room, I saw a single chair with a plate on the table with food all around. Basu entered a little later. "What’s this? Get another chair, and a plate for him. He will have breakfast with me," the CM said to the caretaker who was a little surprised. I pulled a chair and sat opposite to him while he went to the washroom. The caretaker got angry and asked me to get up from the chair. I followed him. Seeing me standing Basu understood. "Strange! Why are you asking him to get up. I asked him to sit with me. Get him some mishti and fruits." The caretaker felt awkward. He had never seen such a CM before. Later, the CM inquired about the security and ensured that they shared the CM’s food.
On another occasion we went to Burdwan. He was tired. "When are we going to the meeting, Joy?" he said. I told him we should start at 4 p.m. He asked me to pull the curtains and went to sleep. At 3.30, I found him sleeping. I went to my room and slept. At four, the orderly called me saying that the CM was sitting in his car. I did not know what to do. I hurriedly dressed up and didn’t have the time to tie my shoe. I reached minutes later and expected a snub. I apologised to him. Basu just smiled.
We were going to Delhi for the CPM politburo meeting. Basu, then the CM, sought an appointment with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. He was in a hurry. The PMO asked us to come along. Basu left while I and the resident commissioner followed him in another car. When we reached I saw our CM sitting in the visitor’s chamber along with chief ministers of Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh who have been waiting for the meeting for hours. A person came out and escorted Basu to Gandhi’s anti-chamber, keeping others waiting.
Basu also respected the Opposition. I recall one occasion when Basu was leaving for London. He was busy clearing files with his officers all in front when Congress leader Satya Bapuli sought his appointment saying that members of the Krishak Sabha were forcibly reaping his crops. Basu asked me to get in touch with the superintendent of police and told Benoy Chowdhury to look into the matter.
But he was not a robot. He found time to spend with his family and meet his friends Snehanshu Acharya and Buchu Mitra, who used to stay in Kurseong. Mitra studied with him at St Xavier’s. On his way to Darjeeling later, he left his convoy and met his friend Buchu and also had lunch with them — luchi and mangso.
Like all politicians, Basu also had his crest and trough in his political life. When he came back from Delhi in 1996 (after the historic blunder) Basu maintained a stony silence. Days later he said: "They offered me the PM’s chair not only because I am a CPM leader, but I have the experience of running a coalition for all these years. Given an opportunity, I could have placed a unique Budget to show what communists look at it. But then, they (those who opposed his views) also have some valid apprehensions. I can’t just rule them out." Party was his leading light and he swore by it despite differences. And in 2000 he relquished the CM’s post on his own, and set a rare precedent in the country.
I saw him upset when people started pointing fingers at him over his staying at Indira Bhavan. "I can leave this place, but I can’t function without a CA," he used to say. I assured him that I am not leaving you and offered to work with him till his last at a token one rupee honorarium from the government. State finance minister Asim Dasgupta approved it.
His eyes and ears were failing during his last days. When I sat beside him he said: "How long will you sit beside me? I can’t talk to you for long." Party leader Biman Bose used to frequent him and update him on party affairs. At times he was complaining. "You have asked them not to allow me outside. They are not listening to me," he used to say. He kept track of the daily developments though. The bloodshed in the districts and continuous killings of his comrades used to pain him the most.