Unifying force

Published : Feb 12, 2010 00:00 IST

Jyoti Basu with leaders of the opposition parties Ramakrishna Hegde, N.T. Rama Rao, M. Karunanidhi and V.P. Singh  in Chennai on August 26, 1989.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Jyoti Basu with leaders of the opposition parties Ramakrishna Hegde, N.T. Rama Rao, M. Karunanidhi and V.P. Singh in Chennai on August 26, 1989.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

IRONICALLY, much of the debate in the media and in political circles on Jyoti Basus role in national politics pertains to a role that he did not assume. The issue of Jyoti Basu being offered the Prime Ministers post in 1996 to head the United Front government, and his party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), deciding against his accepting the offer had come up time and again during his lifetime. Now, after his death, it has once again made an eloquent return. However, Jyoti Basus contribution to national politics is not merely about his inability to become Prime Minister in 1996. A careful assessment of his political career and also interactions with national and regional politicians across the ideological-political spectrum make it clear that he played a role in national politics right through his life.

In fact, his first political activity, as a student in England, began with the national freedom movement. He had occasion to interact with top leaders of the freedom movement, including Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose. Talking about his participation in the freedom movement and his later roles as the Chief Minister of West Bengal and a Polit Bureau member of the CPI(M), Jyoti Basu told this correspondent in 2005 that the principal thrust of the political activities of Communist leaders of his generation was to bring together the values of the national movement and independent India in order to fulfil the hopes and aspirations of a people that suffered under the yoke of colonialism. When I joined politics, the national movement had reached a critical stage. The question in front of us was not only how to free our country but also how to build it after Independence, liberating the poor from the travails of backwardness, he said.

In the initial years, after returning to India and joining the undivided Communist Party of India (CPI), his activities were concentrated in Kolkata and the rest of Bengal. But, by 1964, when the CPI split, leading to the formation of the CPI(M), he had started making his presence felt in a significant way in national politics. This role developed more concretely in the mid-1970s, when the Congress government led by Indira Gandhi declared the Emergency. The struggle against the Emergency was carried out by opposition parties unitedly, and Jyoti Basu was deeply involved in coordinating and carrying forward this united political action.

With the historic electoral victory of 1977 and the formation of the Left Front government under his leadership in West Bengal, Jyoti Basus political role at the national level went through a nuanced qualitative change. The idea, he told this correspondent, was to evolve a model of governance that would be upheld as a role model. Given the social, economic and political dimensions of the 1970s and 1980s, the focus was on the agricultural sector and the implementation of wide-ranging and concrete land reforms. Strengthening and spreading local administration through the panchayati raj system and enhancing literacy levels were the other areas of focus.

Explaining this further, he said, We had advanced the struggle for land reforms when we were in the opposition. We were asking the government, where were the land reforms they themselves had promised? All that the government of the Congress party did was to adopt a resolution in the Assembly, but nothing happened. The zamindars and the landlords continued as before. During the agitation phase, we had studied the deficiencies in the approach of the Congress and when we came to power, the first thing we did was to redistribute 13 lakh acres of land to peasants, agricultural labourers, sharecroppers, and so on.

The national impact of this initiative was acknowledged by Congress leader and former Union Minister for Panchayati Raj Mani Shankar Aiyar in an article as follows: He [Jyoti Basu] has wrought a revolution in the countryside. His land reforms have given a real opportunity to the tiller. The deep roots given to panchayati raj have, indeed, ensured that, even in contemporary times, what Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow. [Former Prime Minister] Rajiv Gandhi was most generous in his praise of the contribution made by the West Bengal experience in panchayati raj to the evolution of his own ideas on the subject. The CPI(M) has been less than generous to him in return, but that does not detract from the importance which Rajivji attached to India as a whole imbibing the more important lessons of the West Bengal revolution in the countryside.

Along with developing this role in the agrarian sector and at the level of local administration, the successive Left Front governments led by Jyoti Basu were also models in maintaining communal harmony and social peace. Unlike the situation in Delhi, violence against the Sikh community following the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984 was contained immediately in West Bengal. Communal disturbance did not spread to West Bengal in 1992 after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya.

However, Jyoti Basus political role between 1977 and 1992 was not confined to governmental initiatives. As several leaders have recalled, he was involved in coordinating all secular opposition forces across the country against the negative trends in national politics right from the early 1980s. As Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav has observed, in the 1980s the struggle was against the authoritarian trends and corrupt practices of the Congress and since the early 1990s it was against the Hindutva agenda of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its associates in the Sangh Parivar. The first phase of these initiatives and interventions witnessed the ouster of the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress government from power in 1989 and the formation of the National Front (N.F.) government under Vishwanath Pratap Singh.

It was in the second phase of the national political initiatives in 1996, when both the incumbent Congress and the principal opposition, the BJP, failed to muster the numbers to form the government at the Centre, that Jyoti Basu was offered the Prime Ministers position by the non-Congress, non-BJP United Front. Mulayam Singh has said that he proposed the name of Jyoti Basu for the post with the full conviction that the country would develop into a progressive state under his leadership. Mulayam Singh took into consideration the political and administrative track record of Jyoti Basu when he made the proposal. He is convinced that rural India would have become a much better place and Maoist extremism would have found it difficult to grow to its current dimensions if Jyoti Basu had become Prime Minister in 1996.

The proposal was turned down by the CPI(M) central committee essentially on the basis of the provisions in the partys constitution which stipulated that the party will never join any government or coalition where it is not in a position to influence decisively the process of policymaking. The assessment of the then central committee was that Jyoti Basu as Prime Minister would not be in a position to influence decisively the process of policymaking. Jyoti Basu himself reportedly evaluated the decision six months later as a historic, political blunder. His contention at that time, according to many leaders and former leaders of the CPI (M), was that the Left Front governments in Kerala and West Bengal had evolved unique, people-oriented, alternative developmental models in several areas of governance and this could have been introduced at the national level if the Prime Ministers position was accepted and the party had become a part of the Union government. However, Jyoti Basu himself did not take the debate forward on this issue in the following years. His position was that the party had taken a decision and as a committed worker of the party he accepted it.

The developments of 1996 did not prevent him from playing an active role in national politics, and he was instrumental, along with CPI(M) general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet, in forging a broad alliance of secular parties against the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA). These efforts found success in the defeat of the NDA in the 2004 elections. Talking to this correspondent after the formation of the first United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, Jyoti Basu said: We know whom they [the Congress party] represent. But at the same time, they are not as bad as the communal forces. They are not a communal party, but have been submitting to communalism time and again. In the background of all this, we are agitating against their wrong policies even while associating with them in the fight against communalism. We hope that our agitation will make them learn some crucial lessons.

Jyoti Basus successive governments were widely criticised for failing to develop industries or information technology in West Bengal although they played constructive roles in many areas of governance. During the campaign for the 2006 Assembly elections in the State, the veteran leader said that there was need for greater industrialisation in West Bengal but it should be remembered that the agriculture sector was the strength of the States economy and society.

He also admitted that he, his party and the Left movement as a whole had not successfully fathomed out the caste system in the country and the social discrimination it perpetuated and evolved appropriate political responses. A couple of days before Janata Dal leader H.D. Deve Gowda assumed office as Prime Minister on June 1, 1996, Jyoti Basu said: In a sense, it is good that I did not become Prime Minister. For it would have been very difficult to administer this caste-ridden bureaucracy, especially since I cannot yet differentiate between a Kurmi and a Kayasth.

Later, in 2005, he stated in an interview that we have a feeling that caste issues were not taken into account [by us] properly. He also added that caste and religion were very important in India and that the Left needed to consider all this and evolve a proper strategy.

He was 91 when he said this, but as a faithful Marxist he was ready for critical self-examination even at that stage. This could well be one of the primary factors that helped him make such a huge contribution and earn the respect and admiration of millions of Indians.

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