Jyoti Basu: The pragmatic communist

By Somnath Chatterjee

Times of India, Jul 8, 2013, 03.42AM IST

Jyoti Basu was to me a rare communist and a bhadralok who upheld his party ideals on the same breath as the democratic spirit of the Constitution. He was my only leader, who could best articulate the voice of the struggling millions within the precincts of parliamentary democracy and outside. At the personal level, he was an affectionate guide who took great care in advising me whenever I was in need.

Somnath Chatterjee, speaker Biman Banerjee, Partha Chatterjee and others paying homage to the late Jyoti Basu on his 100th Birth Anniversary at West Bengal Assembly on Monday. 

His life is an illuminating saga of active participation in people's struggle. He spoke in the people's language, minus the political jargons, because he could feel what they felt and could express what they wanted to. Personally, I have been extremely fortunate to work under his guidance. Basu taught us, as he himself followed, that politics provides the best opportunities to serve the people as one's mission in life and should not be treated as a matter of part-time hobby or pastime.

He wanted everyone to remember that people occupied the most important and central position in a democratic set-up and he wanted us to judge our activities in terms of people's welfare and progress.

Basu had the capacity to assess the significance of developing situations political or otherwise and he could quickly react to them most aptly. His "one-liners", if I may so describe them, were not only brief but on most occasions found wholly appropriate.

Another quality he had, which is seldom found among politicians today, is that he was never dogmatic, though he had clarity over what he and his party wanted to achieve. But he never acted partisan in contentious matters. That explains how he could maintain excellent rapport even with the opposition and act as a binding force of the Left for all these years.

Though his objective was to usher in a classless society, he realized that till it was achieved, the party should fully participate in parliamentary democracy under the Constitution of India, which should be strengthened as well. He set an outstanding example of how to run a coalition government in harmony.

And for this quality, and his success as chief minister, Basu was entreated repeatedly in 1996 by the leaders of the United Front in Delhi to take charge as Prime Minister. What followed is known to all.

I still recall the day when I met an ailing Basu at his Kolkata residence on July 12, 2008, when I heard rumours doing the rounds that the CPM politburo wanted me to step down as Speaker of the Lok Sabha ahead of the confidence vote on the Indo-US nuclear deal in Parliament after the Left withdrew its support to the UPA. Basu was fully aware of the party's stand and I had no discussion with him on the matter. I also had no idea whether he agreed with the party's stand. But he advised me that I should preside over the proceedings of the House on the confidence motion. My resignation, he felt as I too believed, would suggest that I was compromising on my position as the Speaker and was allowing my actions to be dictated by a political party, which would go against the basic tenets of parliamentary democracy. He further advised me that I could take a decision after the trust vote because I had arranged the annual Hiren Mukkherjee Parliamentary Lecture on August 11 where Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen was to deliver his speech.

I can't but mention two of his great achievements, namely land reforms and devolution of power to the grassroots through panchayati raj and municipal bodies to which elections had not been held for many years.

Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi openly acknowledged the success of the panchayati system in West Bengal under Jyoti Basu's leadership. Basu also pioneered the movement for a balanced development. He brought to the fore the federal structure of our country, both in terms of political and financial powers an issue that was lapped up by other state governments. As a true democrat, he always spoke against the misuse of Article 356 of the Constitution that provides for dismissal of state government by imposition of the President's Rule.

His long unbeaten innings as chief minister has to its store many milestones in the field of agriculture and industry in Bengal. As a pragmatic leader, Basu realized that though he and his party and the Left Front were opposed to globalization and liberalization, he couldn't ignore the existing laws and opportunities to usher in speedy industrialization. With that objective, Basu formulated and announced the industrial policy of the Left Front government in September 1994. Haldia Petrochemicals and Bakreswar Power Station were two of the major projects which he successfully dealt with through protracted negotiations, and at a time, going into a confrontation with the Union government. Many other important units like Mitsubishi Project in Haldia and the thriving IT sector in Salt Lake Sector V are the fruits of his forward looking policy.

Even as Basu and his party were all for expanding the public sector, he realized that a state government could not bring about radical changes in the country's industrial policy. Basu thus opted for a judicious mix of the public sector, the private sector and the joint sector. It pained me when some of his critics tried to underplay the achievements of the Left Front government during Basu's tenure, saying that he could do little, especially during the latter part of his tenure. I had the opportunity of talking to him about the problems and also didn't hide my reservations on the workings of the government, for which he was not to blame. But I am not going into them.

Basu was not keeping well and didn't want to cling to the seat of power. When he realized that he was not being able to devote full time and attention to his duties, Basu requested his party more than once to relieve him as chief minister and also from the important positions he held in the party. However, that was not accepted then for good reasons. But when he felt that his health was deteriorating further, he put in his papers as chief minister after 23 years and left the Writers' Buildings without showing even a trace of emotion. But as a true communist, he continued with his political life, attending meetings both at party office and addressing public gatherings till his last.

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