A Man of Quality

By Prabhat Patnaik
23th June,2010

Jyoti Basu did not dress like a man of the masses. Jyoti Basu did not talk like a man of the masses. Jyoti Basu did not have any of the personal accoutrements one associates with a man of the masses. And yet the masses loved him. He did not seek popularity; the idea of doing so would have repelled him. Yet popularity came to him. And it came precisely because the idea of seeking popularity was repugnant to him. His very "naturalness", his very distaste for frills, was a symptom of a man of quality; and the masses loved him because of this quality. He had charisma because he did not seek charisma.
In fact all his remarkable traits, his courage, his straightforwardness, his integrity, his tenacity, his keeping faith with the masses, came "naturally" to him. He was courageous because it would not occur to him to be anything else. He had integrity because this to him was the "natural" thing. He kept faith with the masses because it would be against his "nature" to be otherwise. Most people in life strike poses; it is difficult not to be an actor, at least on occasions; it is difficult not to pretend to be different from oneself on occasions. Jyoti Basu was remarkable because he was not a poseur, because he never play-acted, because he never pretended to be different from what he really was. And what he really was is a man of quality, for whom being "cheap", being low, being duplicitous, being manipulative and being mendacious is simply foreign to his personality. It is this directness that appealed to the masses. They loved him because they could trust him. He kept his word. He would not wilfully lead them astray; and if he made mistakes they were genuine mistakes which he would own up to.
And above all, he had faith in the masses. The masses knew it and responded to his faith in them. His immense strength, his supreme self-confidence came not because of any specific honing of his personality, not because of any "cultivation" of his personality. It came from this simple alchemy between him and the masses: each of them trusted the other; each was sure of the other’s response to it. One may like reading detective novels as Jyoti Basu did; one may like good food as Jyoti Basu did; one may be England-educated and like visiting England occasionally as Jyoti Basu did; one may be as unascetic and as much of a bon vivant as Jyoti Basu was; but as long as this alchemy exists one is a "man of the masses". Being a "man of the masses" is a matter of this alchemy, not of dress or food or asceticism.
It is exceedingly difficult to come across a person who combines these three qualities: "naturalness"; complete freedom from "cheapness", duplicity and mendacity; and faith in the masses. Jyoti Basu combined these in full measure. That is what defined him. It was apparent in several episodes of his life, and also in the totality of his political career.
In the late nineteen sixties during the rule of one of the United Front governments, there was a police revolt against the government. Rebellious policemen attacked the state legislature building. Legislators, including the Speaker himself, fled in all directions. Jyoti Basu, who was in his room in the Assembly building, kept working there, unflappable as ever. As the Home Minister he was the prime target of the rebellious policemen, but he stayed put. When the police mob got to his room, the very sight of him, sitting there unflinchingly, brought it to a halt. Then he coolly addressed them: "You can do what you please here, but how will you face the masses who will come for you when they hear the news of your attack?" The mob disappeared sheepishly. This combination of raw courage that is almost "natural" since no other course of action would strike him on an occasion like this, and of faith in the masses, defined Jyoti Basu. One cannot get away doing what one likes; one is accountable to the masses who will come eventually.
Journalese is in the habit of crediting Jyoti Basu with "flexibility". Underlying this "flexibility", however, was immense courage. It was not "flexibility" of opportunism but "flexibility" based on principles, "flexibility" necessary in the interests of the people, the kind of "flexibility" that the Chinese Communists had displayed when they had abducted Chiang Kai-shek from Xian to sign an agreement with them to defend China against Japanese invasion. Anyone familiar with events in West Bengal in the early-seventies knows the immense sacrifices made by the Marxists during the period of semi-fascist terror. Jyoti Basu had been a witness and a victim of it. He had called off his polling agents from the Baranagar constituency in the face of the massive booth capturing that his opponents had unleashed in the 1972 Assembly polls. And yet it was Jyoti Basu who was the architect of a united front with the very same opponents in 2004, when the UPA formed a government at the centre supported from the outside by the Left. And that support was steadfast; if that government did not last its full term, it was for no fault of Jyoti Basu and his Party.
To be able to unite even against one’s bitterest opponents when the interests of the people so demand requires intellectual courage of the highest order. In leading his Party to support the UPA in order to prevent the ascendancy of communal fascism, Jyoti Basu displayed that rare intellectual courage, which again can come only from a deep knowledge and understanding of the masses.
I had met Jyoti Basu for the last time in 2005, when, as the Conference-President-elect of the Indian Society of Labour Economics, I had gone to invite him to inaugurate the Conference. He agreed graciously despite poor health. After he had spoken, deeply critical of neoliberal economic policies and, in particular, of the introduction of "labour market flexibility", he asked me to send a copy of the speech to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. "Flexibility" of the sort Jyoti Basu valued meant speaking truth to all, including those whose views are opposed to yours.