Jyoti Basu: Marxist in practice

Jyoti Basu was by no means a lone star but one in a galaxy of stalwarts who founded the CPI(M).

Published : Feb 12, 2010 00:00 IST

The first Polit Bureau of the CPI(M), 1964: (Standing, from left) P. Ramamurti, M. Basavapunnaiah, E.M.S. Namboodiripad and Harkishan Singh Surjeet; (sitting, from left) Pramode Dasgupta, Jyoti Basu, P. Sundarayya, B.T. Ranadive and A.K. Gopalan.-COURTESY: GANASHAKTI The first Polit Bureau of the CPI(M), 1964: (Standing, from left) P. Ramamurti, M. Basavapunnaiah, E.M.S. Namboodiripad and Harkishan Singh Surjeet; (sitting, from left) Pramode Dasgupta, Jyoti Basu, P. Sundarayya, B.T. Ranadive and A.K. Gopalan.

The first Polit Bureau of the CPI(M), 1964: (Standing, from left) P. Ramamurti, M. Basavapunnaiah, E.M.S. Namboodiripad and Harkishan Singh Surjeet; (sitting, from left) Pramode Dasgupta, Jyoti Basu, P. Sundarayya, B.T. Ranadive and A.K. Gopalan.-COURTESY: GANASHAKTI The first Polit Bureau of the CPI(M), 1964: (Standing, from left) P. Ramamurti, M. Basavapunnaiah, E.M.S. Namboodiripad and Harkishan Singh Surjeet; (sitting, from left) Pramode Dasgupta, Jyoti Basu, P. Sundarayya, B.T. Ranadive and A.K. Gopalan.

WITH the passing away of Jyoti Basu a whole epoch in the history of modern India seems to have come to a close.

He was surely, as is often said, one of the nine members of the first Polit Bureau of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) when it was founded in 1964. Among that generation of legendary leaders, he was the last to go. And, he is now chiefly remembered as the longest serving Chief Minister in independent India, for a total of a little more than 23 years, having led his party to victory in West Bengal in five successive elections and building a legacy that helped the CPI(M) to win two more elections since he relinquished chief ministership. That alone would ensure an eminent place for him in the annals of Indian politics and the annals of the history of democratic communism more generally.

All that came later, but that is what mostly constitutes the burden of the eulogies for him in the immediate aftermath of his death. Even so, the memory would be ill-served if we were to remember only the latter years of his life, glorious and precious as those memories are, no doubt. It is best to begin by recalling, therefore, that by the time Jyoti Basu assumed the mantle of chief ministership he was already 63 years old with a valiant political career behind him, having been elected to various legislative Assemblies seven times, in pre-Partition Bengal and in post-Partition West Bengal, and having served as Deputy Chief Minister, twice, during the turbulent years of 1967-71. He was the last of the great leaders of India who could still recall his initial radicalisation as a schoolboy when a rally to greet Subhas Chandra Bose was broken up by the colonial forces and he, newly khaddar-clad, received police lathis on his back, only to come home and have his mother apply a turmeric-lime mixture to his deep bruises; and, for whom the Chittagong Armoury Raid of 1930 was a deeply etched personal memory when he, still a boy, confronted his school authorities in support of the raid as part of a national anti-colonial uprising.

One forgets now that Jyoti Basu joined the Communist Party of India (CPI) in 1940, three years before the CPI was able to hold its first open congress, in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1943; and that he was elected to the central committee of the undivided party in 1951, 13 years before he helped found the CPI(M) and 50 years before he relinquished his chief ministership. Nor is it easy to recall now that his career as a member of Bengals various provincial Assemblies began in 1946, when undivided India and undivided Bengal were still under colonial rule, and ended only in the opening years of the 21st century, spanning more than the first 50 years of independent India. During this entire period, he was not in the Assembly only when he was either in prison or in the underground or, as happened in 1972, because he and his party had boycotted participation in what he was to call an Assembly of fraud, which had come about as a result of the Presidents rule that had been imposed after the CPI(M)s electoral victory the year before and which gave the Congress the opportunity to rig the elections massively.

By then, of course, Comrade Jyoti Basu knew all about electoral fraud as a normal feature of bourgeois parliamentarianism. He had encountered it, at the hands of the Congress itself, in the very first election he fought and won, in 1946, against Humayun Kabir, a Congress stalwart on whose behalf illustrious leaders such as Maulana Abul Kalam Azad had campaigned and for whom the state machinery the police, the postal services, and what not had organised an elaborate fraud. He gives some details of that fraud in an unfinished and yet unpublished memoir in possession of the publishing house of LeftWord Books. Those details we may omit but the summation is worth quoting:

This election was also an education. We realised that our critics and rivals could take to any means, open or hidden. I was eyewitness to the Congress hooliganism. After the elections I returned to the State party office at 121, Lower Circular Road. Wounded comrades were lying on the ground floor. This was a result of Congress goondaism throughout Calcutta [now Kolkata]. The 1946 elections taught me that there could be no place for ideals and honesty in such a bourgeois set-up.

Comrade Jyoti Basu worked for the next 50 years within such a set-up, pursuing policies that were inspired by communist ideals but within a republic of the bourgeoisie. However, he never forgot that hooliganism is intrinsic to that system and one participates in it by rubbing it against its own grain. There is something profoundly ironic, and a tribute to the quiet sagacity of his temper, about the fact that all the current representatives of that very set-up lined up to pay homage to him at the time of his death.

Jyoti Basu was by no means a lone star but one in a galaxy of stalwarts who founded the CPI(M). However, unlike some of his somewhat older colleagues of a different social/regional background, such as A.K. Gopalan or E.M.S. Namboodiripad, he had no past in the Indian National Congress or the Congress Socialist Party. Inspired by the radical side of the anti-colonial movement as a schoolboy, he came to have a communist political affiliation while still a law student in England and the undivided CPI was the first party he ever joined, immediately upon his return. In this, his trajectory was partially different thanks to his different class background, since he had graduated with Honours from the Presidency College in Calcutta and his family was able to send him to London to train to be a barrister. He first learned to be a communist not within the predicates of the colonial society within India but in the radical precincts of communist student life in the imperial centre itself, among a number of Indian students who learned to make a connection between capitalist and imperialist oppressions on the one hand, and communist resolution of these problems on the other. Jyoti Basu was not the only one who returned with a degree (to be a barrister-at-law) and immediately joined the party instead; but he was one of the very few and undoubtedly the most illustrious and tenacious. He joined the party in 1940 and remained a member for 70 years. The sheer historical span boggles the mind.

Three factors in that early honing of Jyoti Basu as communist activist are worth recalling. First, upon joining the party as a product of a genteel Calcutta family and with a degree in law, he was assigned the task of serving as liaison between the underground and the above-ground sections of the party, and thus learned to work on both sides of the law.

Second, and more crucially, he was shifted in 1944 to trade union work, getting to organise a railway workers union in the Bengal/Assam region. It was from the Railway constituency that he got elected as MLA in 1946. Faced with Congress hooliganism in the course of that first election campaign, he learned how a well-organised working class movement can fan out and overcome systematically the fraudulent practices of the bourgeois politicians and their cohorts in the bureaucracy. He was to retain this connection with the working class and trade union work all his life.

The third element in the political education of Jyoti Basu in this period was more complex. In short, Communists did get politically very isolated in India owing to the partys decision to not join the Quit India Movement of 1942 because, after Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union, the Second World War was seen as a peoples war against worldwide fascist offensive. However, the Great Bengal Famine, which was itself a result of the colonial governments diversion of food supplies to the war front with no compensatory mechanism, and which raged with great ferocity during 1943-44, was the occasion when the party worked relentlessly among the victims of famine and led broader anti-famine campaigns among various strata of society, thus overcoming the earlier isolation through sheer mass work.

This same experience of expanding the party base through tenacious work to bring relief to the masses was further intensified during the communal carnage of 1946, which has gone down in history as the Great Calcutta Killings, and then during the immediate aftermath of Partition when Bengal suffered as great a killing spree and refugee exodus as Punjab in the North.

By the time Jyoti Basu was inducted into the central committee of the undivided CPI in 1951 he was already a veteran of these struggles: in the working class struggles as trade union leader among railway workers and their elected leader in the Assembly; as a prominent party militant during the great famine; and again as one of the party leaders during the successive waves of communal killings and Partition violence. This is not the place to rehearse the career of Jyoti Basu. The point, rather, is to say that by the time he became the Chief Minister of West Bengal in 1977, after the crucial battles of the 1967-77 period, he had been an experienced Communist leader for more than a quarter century.

As for the overall assessment of Jyoti Basu among the very distinguished leaders of his party from 1964 onwards, an editorial in The Hindu summarised it succinctly:

Some CPI(M) leaders most importantly, E.M.S. Namboodiripad, B.T. Ranadive, and M. Basavapunnaiah distinguished themselves as exponents and developers of Marxist theory. Some others most importantly, P. Sundarayya, Pramode Dasgupta, and Harkishan Singh Surjeet contributed specially to party-building and organisational affairs. Mr. Basus great strength was in another domain where theory, vision, polemic, and the ideological characteristics and organisational resources of a revolutionary movement encountered the challenge of working with the masses and winning them over.

Thus, unlike Namboodiripad or Ranadive, Jyoti Basu wrote relatively little and that too not much of a theoretical nature. Ideas were embodied largely in the form of practice in concrete situations of building the party and the mass movements, and in formulating policies as head of the State government. The visionary qualities of Jyoti Basus leadership are difficult to disentangle from the actual workings of the party and the government under that leadership, or from the ledger of successes and failures of the policies he formulated and implemented within the framework of what was always a collective enterprise.

Indeed, one of the cardinal virtues of Jyoti Basu was, precisely, this punctual submission of self to the greater good. No office is higher than that of the Prime Minister. Yet, when that office was offered to him he turned it down in view of a decision made collectively by the majority of the central committee of the CPI(M) even though he did not personally, as a key leader of the party, agree with that decision. Nor was that the first time he declined to fight for higher office. As early as 1967, when the CPI(M) emerged as the largest party in the State Assembly of West Bengal, he accepted the office of Deputy Chief Minister in order to maintain the broad unity within the first non-Congress government in the State since Independence.

The same situation was repeated in 1969, when the CPI(M) actually won even a larger percentage of seats and votes. There is no doubt that this kind of farsighted leadership, exemplifying a kind of principled politics rare in our country, contributed greatly to the ability of the West Bengal party to survive the reign of terror against it, then fight back against extreme persecution during the period of the Emergency, and emerge greatly strengthened from those dark days, winning an absolute majority in 1977, to form a State government which remained undefeated during the rest of Jyoti Basus lifetime.

There were two different aspects to the achievements of that earlier period. On the one hand, Jyoti Basu led the West Bengal CPI(M) from strength to strength, from its inception in 1964 to its assumption of government 13 years later, from 43 seats in 1967 to an absolute majority of 178 in 1977. This would be considered an extraordinary achievement under any circumstances. But that decade between 1967 and 1977 was itself more than extraordinary. In the first four years, the State Assembly was dissolved three times, to keep the Left, mainly the CPI(M), out of government. The mass persecution of party cadres, which began in 1968, became a full-fledged reign of terror by 1970 and was then supplemented by violence perpetrated by an ultra-Left that had broken off from the party. (The nefarious coalition and the machinery of violence that have been gathering momentum in West Bengal since Singur bring back memories of that phase some 40 years ago.)

Repressions of the Emergency came on top of all that. Survival would have been heroic enough. The expansion which culminated in the spectacular electoral victory of 1977 was beyond anything that anyone would have predicted, and Jyoti Basus leadership abilities were central to the making of that outcome.

That achievement was so great that one now forgets the other aspect. From the 1960s onward, the West Bengal CPI(M), led by Jyoti Basu, undertook a rare and most innovative experiment in coalition politics, in a period when India was used to single-party hegemony. The decade 1967-77 in West Bengal witnessed a new kind of politics in which many of the widely dispersed forces of the Left were brought together under the increasing hegemony of the CPI(M), and this front of Left forces then gathered many other democratic forces around itself to break the dominance of Congress rule. Even in 1977, and since then, the strategic vision of a united Left Front has remained in place regardless of the actual strength of the coalition partners. Jyoti Basu was by far the most important Indian leader to have demonstrated, as head of the West Bengal government for over two decades, that, far from being a source of instability, coalition government is not only necessary in conditions prevailing in India but also, if correctly implemented, coalition formation can itself be a source of great stability and continuity in modes of governance.

Jyoti Basu was also perhaps the most vigorous champion of federalism in Indian politics. We have inherited from our colonial masters a mode of governance that is essentially viceregal in nature, with Delhi constantly asserting its supremacy and the federating units getting subjected to the whims and prerogatives of the Union government. India is constitutionally not a unitary nation-state but in fact a union of nationalities, which means that more power, including legislative and fiscal power, needs to be devolved to the federating units. Throughout his long tenure as Chief Minister, Jyoti Basu was the pre-eminent spokesperson for this position in national politics.

Who does ever give up power voluntarily, in the absence of any challenge whatever, and only to ensure a smooth transition to a younger generation? Jyoti Basu embodied that rare virtue. His desire to step aside at the height of his power, to make way for those younger leaders whom he had painstakingly groomed, was so keen that even the broad public came to know that it was only thanks to pressure from his senior colleagues in the party leadership that he stayed at the helm of West Bengal government during those last few years. Even so, the decision to exit in mid-term was a master stroke. The transition was smooth and the successor, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, got the time to show his abilities as Chief Minister and go into the next election not as newcomer but as incumbent. Thats how politics should be. In most of India, it is not.

I have deliberately not written about the extraordinary achievements of the Left Front government in West Bengal under Comrade Jyoti Basus leadership. Other contributors to this issue of Frontline shall do so. I would rather emphasise the odds against which these achievements have taken place. Five of these many unfavourable conditions for rule of the Left in West Bengal need special mention.

First, it is not possible to build anything resembling communism, socialism, even true democracy in a bourgeois republic of the capitalist-landlord alliance. How do you prevent capital flight from West Bengal to other States while also defending some basic rights for the working class? How do you truly liberate the peasantry when key powers in the agriculture sector rest not with the State government but with the Centre? How do you implement left-wing policies with a right-wing police and bureaucracy? And so on. Choices and possibilities are always narrow.

Second, history! Bengal is the region in India that was colonised the longest and therefore suffered from colonial ravages the most, especially in the countryside. Then came Partition, the influx of the refugees, the sundering apart of Bengals economy. Then the legendary Congress misrule in the State, the reign of terror and virtual war against the Left for a decade before the Left prevailed. When Jyoti Basu became Chief Minister, he inherited a wreck and set out to turn that wreck into a decent society.

Third, commitment to the unity of the Left Front and handling the vagaries of bourgeois electoralism require programmatic compromises. Partners have to be accommodated at every turn, concessions offered to various social forces in the electoral arena, so as not to alienate existing and potential allies and risk isolation. So, one tries to ensure longevity of governance so that a less radical set of reforms keep accumulating and make a qualitative change over the longer run.

Fourth, the question of imperialism. It was always there, but in the opening decades of the republic there was at least some commitment to independent development as much as possible. By the time the Left Front government was formed in 1977, however, that commitment was getting dissolved. When Indira Gandhi returned to power after the very problematic Janata interlude, the shift towards the United States and towards what we now call neoliberalism was palpable and became more so under Rajiv Gandhi.

By 1991, the Manmohan era had begun. How do you defend reforms in one State when the most basic kinds of protectionism are getting abandoned on a national scale and the countrys markets are being integrated into the global market, its pricing mechanisms, its investment priorities, its trade patterns, and so on? In other words, how do you make decisions for the economy in your own State when decisions for the national economy itself are being made in accordance with the Washington Consensus? How do you build the information technology (IT) industry in Kolkata, for example, by denying it the privileges it can get so easily in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat?

Fifth, which follows logically from the above, is the great isolation of West Bengal within the country. Tripura is small. The Left-led governments in Kerala, by no means a very large State, have great achievements to their credit but also rely more on non-Left democratic forces, and are subject therefore to a different logic of attrition. In the rest of the country, there has been no considerable breakthrough. West Bengal pays for that lack.

The significance of the great achievements in West Bengal increases when one realises the odds against which those achievements have been obtained. Much of the credit for fighting and achieving against all odds goes to Jyoti Basu more than any other individual. Not only the Left in West Bengal but also the Indian Left in general, and perhaps the Left much beyond India, owes him an enduring debt of gratitude.

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