DIMINUTIVE Jyoti Basu, who outlived most of his contemporaries, was a man of towering political stature, India’s pre-eminent and most charismatic Communist leader at the mass level and one of its most illustrious statesmen of the past century. His political career, representing the second-generation Communist experience, spanned an astonishing seven decades (1940-2010). As the longest-surviving of the nine founding members of the CPI(M) Polit Bureau and as independent India’s longest-serving Chief Minister by far (June 21, 1977 to November 6, 2000), he made game-changing contributions at the political, ideological, and administrative levels in West Bengal and a significant qualitative impact at the national level, transcending the regional limitations of the Left’s base and influence and winning him the offer of the Prime Minister’s job in 1996.
In fact, many people, including and notably the political economist Lord Meghnad Desai, believe Jyoti Basu was the best Prime Minister India never had, although it is clear to me that given the Left’s, and the United Front’s, modest numbers in Parliament and the total dependence on the Congress party for support, the Communist Party of India (Marxist)‘s majority decision to turn down the offer was well-reasoned and sound. Everyone knows that Jyoti Basu famously characterised the decision as a historic blunder. His subsequent public explanations made it clear that this was not on account of any personal disappointment but because he reckoned that having a Communist veteran, even for a while, at the helm in New Delhi would have been a real opportunity (which was not going to be repeated for quite a while) to introduce and project the party’s programme and policies to the people of India. It is impossible to say from this distance how a Jyoti Basu prime ministership would have turned out and whether any surprises might have been in store. But it seems at least likely that India’s pre-eminent Communist leader would have been a sacrificial Prime Minister.
At any rate, this episode must not be allowed to become a distraction from the real significance of his game-changing helmsmanship of one of India’s largest and most important States. Along with another second-generation Communist veteran, Pramode Dasgupta, a genius of organisation, Jyoti Basu was the chief architect of the Left Front edifice and the remarkable socio-economic and political changes it brought to the lives of millions of working people in West Bengal.
Indeed the Left Front experience constitutes something of a world record: no Communist-led government in any other part of the world can boast such a succession of electoral victories. These victories have also been decisive, giving the Left better than a two-thirds majority and the CPI(M) an absolute majority each time in the Assembly. Not given to exaggeration or overstatement, Jyoti Basu allowed, matter-of-factly, that being elected for a five-year term seven times in succession (five of those under his direct leadership) was not only an achievement without precedent in India but also in the history of parliamentary democracy in the world. But he always emphasised that credit for this must go to the conscious, struggling people of the State.
The highlights of Jyoti Basu’s legacy as Chief Minister are well known: land reforms, which benefited millions of sharecroppers and other peasants and helped consolidate a rural class base that proved quite unbeatable over three decades; the democratisation and vitalisation of panchayati raj institutions; the establishment of the Haldia petrochemical complex, West Bengal’s biggest industrial initiative; the creation of an atmosphere of communal harmony and secularism across a large State; clean, transparent governance; and political stability of a new kind. There were significant under-achievements in the fields of education and public health and in terms of industrial development. But Jyoti Basu was not one to cover up deficiencies or shortcomings and in the last decade of his life he spoke candidly about what might have been achieved during his 23 years at the helm had there been the necessary understanding backed by a concentrated effort.
The foundations for Jyoti Basu’s distinction were laid much before he became one of the country’s most important Chief Ministers. An educated and sophisticated man, trained in Britain to be a barrister, he joined the Communist Party when it was illegalised, worked in the trade union movement and in mass organisations, faced state repression, and was schooled in tough struggle before emerging as one of the top leaders of the Communist movement and after the split, as one of the founding members of the CPI(M)s nine-member Polit Bureau. A byword for courage and steadfastness, he was also famous for his cool; he brushed off assassination attempts, which brought about no noticeable change in his style of mass politics.
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. Jyoti Basu’s 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. His genius lay in this immensely difficult interface, where many an ideal, many a leader, and many a political ambition has failed to achieve notable success.
As a leader and administrator, he was reputed for his clarity of vision, his decisiveness, his gift for focussing on central issues and tasks, and his practicality. He was sometimes called a pragmatist, a label (employed approvingly in some quarters) that he amusedly but emphatically rejected. “They’re saying we are pragmatists,” he remarked to me in an interview for Frontline in early 1995. “’Because Jyoti Basu is a pragmatist!’ I said. ‘I’m not a pragmatist. I’m a Marxist.’” A man of laconic speech and dry wit, he often sounded disarmingly simple, especially in interviews. From time to time, this trait was deliberately misinterpreted, by anti-Communist journalists as well as ultra-left dogmatists, as a lack of ideological and political depth. But it was essentially a gift for cutting through confusion, obfuscation, casuistry, and cant.
His neat, ordered, and nimble mind, and the habits and style acquired over more than half a century of revolutionary work (where straightforwardness with the masses was highly valued) always worked against the Muddle. He never tired of countering the misapprehension or distortion put out in the press about the character of the Left Front experiment. It is not a socialist economy and system operating here. We have not made tall promises. Whatever we can do, we have told them. One thing we cannot do, that is, bring about fundamental changes. Because we are not a republic of West Bengal! We are a part of India. This remark, made to me in an interview, was typical.
In this perspective, the Left Front, and the CPI(M), which leads it, continue to work against tough odds. They work within the constraints of the prevalent system of political economy to advance the interests of the working people, to provide relief to them, and to educate them on what is and is not feasible. They work to uphold the cause of democracy, secularism, and socialism, which give the Left Front its defining orientation. What they can do, and have been doing very effectively, is (in the words of Jyoti Basu) to bring about such reforms by which people will feel that somebody is looking at them, and that we are trying to do our best. Even if we don’t succeed, we take the people into confidence and tell them why we have not succeeded in certain spheres and that they should understand.
But this must not be allowed to become a rationale or excuse for doing little. On the contrary, in the Jyoti Basu vision, West Bengal under the Left Front would be failing the people if it did not take the fullest advantage of the space and opportunities available today in the changing political, and to some extent policy, environment. Those who could not appreciate this duality in the situation would always find themselves inside the Muddle. Nevertheless, he understood better than anyone else that the enthusiasm to promote industrial development, to make up for the effects of past neglect and discrimination, and to change the rules of the economic game in the State could go too far. Going along a new policy track usually involved some excesses of enthusiasm and overcorrection. But the balance needed to be constantly maintained, which required monitoring and critical scrutiny of the experiment from a baseline of clearly defined Left principles and objectives.
And what about the recent time of troubles for the Left Front? Jyoti Basu’s habit of taking the long view and his resilience and essential optimism were reflected in his observation that the recent electoral setbacks suffered by the Left in West Bengal were because “we could not take our message properly to the people.” He had no problem in admitting, “Besides, in certain areas we made mistakes.” Most significantly, he observed in his interview to the CPI(M)s daily newspaper, Ganashakti , a month after the results of the 2009 Lok Sabha polls were announced: “It is the people who determine the course of history. There can be some who misunderstand us temporarily, but if we keep going to the people repeatedly and make ourselves worthy of their love, they will most certainly understand us. We will have to again draw to our side those who opposed us in the last panchayat and Lok Sabha elections.”
Everyone, including Western journalists, understood that Jyoti Basu was an unusual kind of political leader and man, reputed for his integrity and straightforwardness, his discipline and work ethic, and his decisiveness in governance. A master of civilised - if, at the core, uncompromising - discourse, he was respected and listened to across the political and ideological spectrum on key policy matters, national and international.
CPI(M) general secretary Prakash Karat was certainly not being hyperbolic when, in his tribute, he singled out the last of the second-generation giants for teaching Communists “how to work and serve the people in parliamentary forums in order to bring about changes in public policy” and declared “there will be none like Jyoti Basu again.” It is indeed the end of a heroic era.