By Brinda Karat
THE colossus of the Indian communist movement, the last of the navratnas who comprised the first Polit Bureau of the CPI(M), our beloved leader Comrade Jyoti Basu is no more. He bore his deteriorating health problems with a sense of dignity and will power through the suffering. Even when he was ill and unable to come to meetings, his wise counsel and guidance were always there for the party, for his comrades. But the inevitable came to pass. In his death the country has lost one of its greatest sons, a man who was born into privilege, who turned his back on it, to fight the fight of the dispossessed.
UNIQUE LEADERSHIP AT CRUCIAL JUNCTURE
Many movements led by communists in different periods of history suffered because of the gulf between theory, principle, programme and practical work. Unlike some other countries, in India the course of the freedom movement left the ruling classes with no alternative but to adopt a parliamentary system of democracy based on a multi-party system. Thus, one of the crucial questions before the communist movement was the role of parliamentary democracy in the strategy for the Indian revolution. This did not remain just a theoretical or academic question precisely because the growth of the communist movement got reflected in the increasing strength in legislatures in the three states of Kerala, Bengal and Tripura, enabling the formation of governments led by the party, though at differing times. This provided a unique opportunity for the party to show to the masses and help them learn by their experience the possibilities and the limitations of bourgeois democracy. The first communist led government under the leadership of Comrade E M S Namboodiripad showed the way, setting out an important framework.
In Bengal, a decade later, there was a parallel yet entirely different model based on the concrete realities of Bengal. The combination provided by the unique parliamentary skills and experience of workers movements provided by the leadership of Comrade Jyoti Basu on the one hand and the strong organisation and struggles built up under that of Comrade Promod Dasgupta and other leaders on the other, developed the communist intervention in Bengal to a plane unmatched in the country. How to combine parliamentary work with extra-parliamentary activity? What are the possibilities to run a government with an alternative vision within the framework of a bourgeois-landlord state? What is the relationship between such a government and the class struggles of the masses? These and so many other, related questions crucial to the implementation of the programmatic understanding of the party for the Indian revolution found some answers through the positive and negative experiences in the fields, factories and the legislature in Bengal. At the core of this historic period, which has so many lessons for us today, was the leadership of Comrade Jyoti Basu. Particularly at a time when there were no precedents or examples to follow, when new problems demanded new solutions, the party was indeed fortunate to have had as its helmsman in government Comrade Jyoti Basu. The profound impact of the government he led through the initiatives taken in crucial areas gave the party a prestige and profile which also enabled a larger role for the party in national politics. Under his leadership, the Left Front government in Bengal became the embodiment of the alternative policies being promoted by the party at the national level.
COLOSSUS WHO SET MANY PRECEDENTS
His was a unique role and he set many precedents. Seventy years in public life in the service of the people. The longest serving elected head of a government in the whole world. A communist who started his public activity as a trade union leader and who continued to remain associated with the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) even as the chief minister, thus sending out a strong message of the difference between a communist chief minister and others. Serving in the Bengal assembly for five decades, interrupted only because of the rigged elections in 1972 and the Emergency. A parliamentarian who used his brilliant skills to raise the voice of the people and later as head of government, to forge alternative policies. A statesman who set an example in united front politics heading the longest most cohesive coalition in the country. A leader who faced several death threats but who never flinched when the bullets flew at him showing exemplary personal courage. A champion of secular values throughout his life starting with his Herculean efforts to douse the communal flames set alight in Calcutta in 1946 who decades later as chief minister helped to make Bengal a safe haven for minority communities and a symbol of communal harmony. A popular leader who insisted on stepping down from the chief minister’s post in spite of the unanimous appeal of his comrades not do so, because he believed that his health did not permit him to work as he would like to. His acceptance of the decision of the Central Committee in 1996 to decline the offer of the prime minister’s post. On his return to Kolkata, when he was asked repeatedly about his personal reaction, he only replied, “I am a disciplined soldier of the party.” With that one sentence, he set a historical example of communist discipline. That too was unique. He deeply respected and set the highest example of maintaining communist norms.
Each and every one of the precedents he set add to the multidimensional nature of the legacy he has left.
He had the most emancipated social outlook, the very epitome of a progressive understanding of social issues, particularly on women. He strongly disapproved of the conservative and male chauvinist attitudes prevalent in society and in politics. His strong reactions to violence against women, his encouragement to building up women’s movements in resistance were a great encouragement to women’s movements and particularly all women comrades in the party. They looked to Jyoti Basu for support and he gave it unstintingly. At the eighth national conference of the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) held in Kolkata in 2007, he made a most memorable speech. Speaking about the important role that women in panchayats were playing in West Bengal, he candidly said, “When Indian women have been given the opportunity they have done well. We are proud of the role of our women in panchayats. I have no hesitation to admit that we had doubts initially whether competent candidates could be found or not. But thanks to organised women’s movement they came out boldly and we find in many of the villages where we have women panchayat members those villages have performed well in all development projects and have also won many awards even at the national level.” Under his leadership, the West Bengal assembly adopted in 1998 a unanimous resolution in support of the women’s reservation bill, becoming the first to do so. Within the party he always urged his comrades to bring more women into the party and to give them more responsibilities.
UNDERSTANDING THE GRASS ROOTS
The higher his stature grew, impacting on national politics as the longest serving chief minister in the country and the one with the most impeccable record of integrity, the sharper his unerring instinct and understanding of the grass roots and the pulse of the people. In contrast to the perceived image of his “being aloof,” he was closest to the thoughts of the people. A true communist, he cared deeply for the interests of the people and was loved by them in return. He never cared for the trappings of power and that is why people identified with him. They believed that wherever he was he would be doing the right thing for them. In Bengal and all over the country, there must be numerous workers and the poor in the villages who grieve today the passing of a man who lived his life to create a world more just for them. For them Jyoti Basu was always “our man;” they knew that wherever he was their interests were uppermost in his mind. In many working class areas in the Hindi speaking region, the party used to be known as “Jyoti Basu’s party.”
They trusted him because Jyoti Basu always spoke the truth to the people. He never exaggerated what he could do for them, he always pointed out the pitfalls. At a time when melodrama and hyperbolic promises mark the political scenario, most striking was Jyoti Basu’s quality of being absolutely straightforward in what he said to the people in the hundreds and thousands of meetings he addressed in his life.
The greatness of Jyoti Basu also lay in his absolute lack of rancour against individuals who may have differed with him politically. He spoke his mind and expected others to do so too. He was extremely democratic and though his towering personality could have silenced any differences if he had wanted to, he never imposed his will but always went by the collective. In his autobiography, he writes how after 1946 when he was elected to the legislature he used to go every evening to the party office to inform and discuss with the party leadership the day’s proceedings and developments. This practice continued throughout his life. He set an example by coming every day to the party office before going on to fulfil his heavy responsibilities as chief minister.
In his reach to the world, Jyoti Basu went far beyond the party he built and loved. He not only touched the lives of millions but, by his pioneering leadership, he changed their lives, giving the poor confidence and dignity. He has left us grieving and bereft.