Monday 8 February 2010
Jyoti Basu is no more. After 17 days of valiant struggle (that first began when he was hospitalised on New Year’s Day having been struck by a bout of pneumonia) he finally succumbed to multi-organ failure and breathed his last at 11.47 am on January 17, 2010. On July 8 last year the former West Bengal CM—the longest-serving head of any State Government in independent India—had completed 95 years in age.
More than 28 years ago when one of Jyoti Basu’s closest colleagues in the communist movement, Bhupesh Gupta (both were of the same age), passed away in faraway Moscow on August 6, 1981, it was written in this journal’s August 15, 1981 issue: “Bhupesh Gupta was the living refutation of the worn-out canard that Communists are out to destroy the parliamentary system.”
This was all the more true in the case of Jyoti Basu who since 1946 played a memorable role in the Bengal legislature highlighting the struggles of the working masses outside.
Soon after independence the Communist Party of India had taken a disastrous course under that arch-priest of sectarianism, B.T. Ranadive, of trying to dislodge the Congress Government at the Centre through armed struggle by aping Mao Zedong’s fight against the Kuomintang and blindly pursuing the Zhdanov Thesis spelt out by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin. Soon the party, battered by self-inflicted isolation from the public, realised its folly and decided, under the guidance of Ajoy Ghosh, S.V. Ghate and S.A. Dange as well as strong pressure from P.C. Joshi, to change course and enter the arena of parliamentary struggles. At that time there was no dearth of anti-Communists and even others who felt that the Communists’ change of tactics was intended to subvert the Constitution and Parliament from within. By dint of their persisting endeavours in Parliament and State legislature to use the parliamentary and legislative forum to safeguard the interests of the toiling people Bhupesh Gupta, Jyoti Basu, Indrajit Gupta, Hiren Mukherjee and others (notable among whom were S.A. Dange and A.K. Gopalan) exposed the hollownese of such accusations. Among them Jyoti Basu played the key role leading a small group of Communist legislators in the West Bengal State Assembly and standing up to the establishment then headed by such a towering personality like Dr B.C. Roy who, as the second CM of the State after independence, showered immense affection on young Basu when the latter was the Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly in the fifties. That was the source of the young Communist leader’s rise in popularity—that he could speak with authority countering Dr Roy’s statements helped him to grow in stature with the passage of time. He was also helped by the fact that there were then few of comparable capability among Communists and the Left in the State Assembly. However, by this one should not underestimate the efforts that he himself made to stand by the people both within the Assembly precincts and outside on the issue of rehabilitation of East Pakistani refugees or the question of the rise in tram fares or the problems faced by the peasantry in the countryside that culminated in the 1959 food movement and the loss of as many as 80 lives due to police attacks.
Even before he assumed power—first as the Deputy CM in the United Front governments of 1967 and 1969 and then as the CM following the Left Front’s sweeping victory in June 1977 after the Emergency—Jyoti Basu’s name had become synonymous with the Left movement in West Bengal. This, of course, assumed a new dimension with the Left Front returning to power in successive elections and Basu achieving the record of being the Chief Minister for more than 23 years at a stretch before he stepped down due to old age and physical ailments in November 2000. Yet the fact that he was around gave a kind of reassurance to the people and he was used on more than one occasion to sort out problems both within the party and outside even if a section of the central party leadership led by the haughty and arrogant Prakash Karat did everything possible, albeit unsuccessfully, to undermine his authority starting from the refusal to make him the PM in 1996 (dismissing the offer to that effect from the entire political spectrum) to the rejection of his counsel for restraint in the wake of the Indo-US nuclear deal and not withdraw the Left support to the UPA Government in 2008 (his advice was ‘oppose the deal tooth and nail everywhere but don’t pull down the UPA Government’ because of the unforeseen consequences of any such adventurist move).
Now that he has passed on to history, the Left and communist movement would no longer be the same and the decline of the Left in the State, already set in motion for sometime, would be expedited and reach its logical conclusion. For Jyoti Basu could command respect beyond the confines of the Left due to his reserved, aristrocrastic, bhadralok image as well as non-doctrinaire approach to problems, both stemming from his being a pragmatist par excellence and a successful practitioner of realpolitic. This is what marked him out as an outstanding leader for he was neither an erudite Marxist like Bhowani Sen (the State party secretary before and immediately after independence), nor a firebrand orator like Bankim Mukherjee or Somnath Lahiri, nor an organisational wizard like Promode Dasgupta, nor a parliamentarian of the level of Bhupesh Gupta or Hiren Mukherjee, nor a trade unionist of the calibre of Indrajit Gupta, nor a kisan leader of the standard of Harekrishna Konar. But where he scored over all of them was his uncanny ability to comprehend how best to negotiate in the whirlpool of parliamentary politics such as not to alienate himself and his party from the bulk of the electorate. In fact he could understand the pulse of the people better than any of his contemporaries in the State’s communist and Left movement.
Despite such qualities he lacked depth and vision. He might have been a good administrator in relative terms but could never be compared with someone like Dr B.C. Roy in the State. He enjoyed unequivocal endorsement both inside the party and outside and hence his functioning as the Chief Minister was never marred by dissidence in the ruling party or Front. But he could have used that advantage to initiate measures that would have rejuvenated West Bengal as a whole—particularly in industry, education and health—thereby bringing down the magnitude of poverty in the State. That, it must be pointed out in all frankness and candour, he did not—or perhaps could not—do. Except for a comprehensive change in land relations in the countryside between 1978 and 1982—on account of ‘Operation Barga’—and the elections to the three-tier panchayats there has not been any genuine endeavour to transform and modernise the State. Thus West Bengal has declined steadily in all areas (and most markedly in education and health) and even in the sphere of upliftment of the Muslim minority its performance is dismal as testified by the Sachar Commission report. As for the belated.
Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 6, January 30, 2010