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Demise of the patriarch – death of Marxism in West Bengal?

January 18, 2010

Jyoti Basu (1914-2010) was the tallest Left leader in the country. His death is the end of an era of Marxist politics in India. The diminutive Barrister, educated in England was a hard core Communist from the very beginning. He, like Gandhi understood the psyche of the people he represented. In Basu’s case, the mind of the people of West Bengal and in Gandhi’s case the mind of the millions of Indians he represented. Both had another thing in common – simplicity and frugality. There was another trait that both shared – they were reluctant leaders who did not hanker for power. This may seem a paradox for the man who ruled West Bengal for all of 23 long years – the longest serving chief minister in India, but he is also the only leader perhaps who voluntarily stepped down and nominated his successor when he could have easily continued. Jyoti Basu was a politician of the old order – a time past when values were given a premium and power was secondary. Jyoti Basu entered the Left movement not for power but for conviction. When he was asked to fight the state elections he got the first taste of parliamentary democracy when he won from the Baranagar constituency in 1952. He consistently won the election from 1952 to 1996 and this may also be a record of sorts.

The legacy of Jyoti Basu, as is the case of most leaders, is a mixed one. He built the party from scratch and turned it into a force that was a citadel of the Red Brigade in West Bengal. He instituted land reforms and organized Panchayati Raj system giving a voice to the masses. Being active in trade union politics for long he used his clout to mobilize people towards the cause of the workers. The situation became precarious when these trade unions became a law unto themselves and many industries had to close down in West Bengal. Calcutta from being the financial capital of the country at one time became a ghost of itself. Basu understood the Bengali psyche and while West Bengal slipped economically, it remained a Left bastion which central parties like the Congress found difficult to break. In the nineties, however, Basu realized the importance of industrial development of the state. By that time the Soviet Union had also disintegrated and there were winds of change at the Center. Basu, while criticizing Manmohan Singh for blindly following IMF’s prescription, allowed foreign direct investment into West Bengal. But by that time it was too late and a good percentage of Bengali Bhadralok (middle class) had migrated to other parts of the country and many others went abroad.

Much is said about the CPI(M)’s cadres that Jyoti Basu had organized. These Leftist ‘workers’ really were goons who did not allow free and fair elections. Those who were thought of as anti-Left were not allowed to vote in elections by these goons that were CPI(M) workers. This was a big blow to democracy in the country. While the Left leaders including Jyoti Basu always talked about democratic principles, he had boycotted the assembly for full five years calling it a ‘fraud’. Jyoti Basu was also one of the Communist leaders who sided with China during the 1962 Sino-Indian conflict. Other prominent leader who supported the Chinese government at that time was late Harkishen Singh Surjeet. It is clear that for Jyoti Basu ideology was more important than the nation. He was a staunch Communist and believed in the sanctity of the Left Brotherhood.

There came a time in 1996 when Jyoti Basu was one of the obvious candidates for the post of prime minister. It would have been a weak government, but a government nevertheless. The Politburo decided that Mr. Basu should forego the chance as it would be an unstable government which would not last. It now appears that some of the interviews that Jyoti Basu gave at that time in which he spoke in Hindi were never aired. It is only now after his death that those interviews are being shown on the TV. Had these interviews been aired at that time there would have been a public unanimity on Jyoti Basu as the prime minister of the country. The man was pretty comfortable with Hindi and this was never highlighted. At that time there was no leader of the stature of Jyoti Basu and had the man wanted, the top post was well within his grasp. It could well be that some members of the Politburo were in touch with the Congress and other national parties and they knew that if Jyoti Basu became the prime minister their own political future would be in jeopardy. Jyoti Basu later called the decision not to take up the top post a ‘political blunder’. Maybe there were forces that were afraid that the country may turn Left if there was a Communist leader at the helm. Deve Gauda was made the prime minister instead.

The passing away of Jyoti Basu is the end of an era. Is this also the end of the Marxists in West Bengal? Going by the trends, one should expect Mamata Banerjee as the next Chief Minister of West Bengal. This does not mean the end of the Left politics in the state. In fact, this means the beginning of another Left party taking ascendance in a state that has fallen behind many others in the past decades. Mamta is riding a tiger to get to the Writer’s Building. She has cultivated the friendship of the Maoists and this is dangerous to say the least. If she has to piggy ride Left ultras like Chatradhar Mahato and Kishenji to get to power in Bengal, then such power is of no use either to her and the Trinmool Congress or for the people of Bengal. The goondaism of the Marxists is being countered by the outlaws that are the Maoists who are waging a battle against the state and who are against any development. The future of Bengal looks bleak. The Center has appointed M.K. Narayanan as the Governor of Bengal, obviously looking at his experience as the National Security Advisor to the prime minister, in an effort to counter the Naxal/Maoists. But I am not sure whether the Congress is serious about checking the rise of the Maoists at least in West Bengal. For it is these ultras who seem to be the answer to the vexed question – how to end the Marxist rule in West Bengal. The answers are unsavory and unpalatable. The average Bengali is between a rock and a hard place. The legacy of Jyoti Basu lives on. It could well be that his times are looked back nostalgically as the times of peace and tranquility, and one not fraught with dangers. Maybe he understood Bengal better than any of us and what he did was the best that one could during his times. The worst is yet to come.

Addendum: The last journey of Jyoti Basu was one fit for kings. Sonia Gandhi, Sheikh Hasina, Advani, Pranab Mukherjee, Deve Gauda and many other dignitaries apart from the Communist party leaders were present in Kolkota. A 21 gun salute followed and then his body was donated for scientific research. The nation and Bengal bid farewell to Jyoti da.

There is however a section of Bengali’s that have neither forgiven nor forgotten what Jyoti Basu and his policies have done to West Bengal. I was in Kolkota in the early nineties and from where I was staying I ventured out. The street had a tram line in the middle and was cobbled. On both sides were buildings that were grey in colour and were laden with soot. They had windows broken and it looked like a picture from a World War II archives. It was as if the city had just been bombed.  I wondered where I was and this was right in the middle of the city. That scene of Kolkota has remained with me ever since.

Many writers and commentators have written a lot about Jyoti Basu’s legacy and Bengali’s are very angry at what Basu and his party have done to Bengal. Bengal was and still is in many ways one of the most vibrant states with a rich heritage and culture that is the envy of many other regions. Yet the poverty and the lack of development has left Bengali’s absolutely fuming. Jyoti Basu politicised bureaucracy. He did not let investment come to Bengal and blamed the Centre for all the ills that afflicted the state. Mass migration followed as there were no jobs in Bengal. It is a sad state of affairs and the leadership must take responsibility. It is being said that Buddhadeb Bhattacharya is trying hard to bring Bengal back on track, but ironically the following of his party is slipping. The much talked about land reforms have also not been done as systematically as one thought as those who supported the party benefited and others lost out. Obituaries for Basu are long essays on how Bengal suffered during his times. Maybe we will learn from the shortcomings of Basu’s era and find a better way of going about things.

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