Interview: Jyoti Basu

A positive triumph

Print edition :

Jyoti Basu, a 2004 photograph. Photo: V. Sudershan

Excerpts from an interview Jyoti Basu gave a Frontline team, including N. Ram, Dr K. Nagaraj and Dr Venkatesh Athreya, after he began his fourth unbeaten innings as the Left Front Chief Minister of West Bengal. The interview was published in the July 19, 1991, issue.

The outcome of the tenth general election fought on issues of secularism, stability and just change has been somewhat mixed. However, here in West Bengal, there has been an unambiguous and resounding verdict in favour of the Left Front which has, in the process, made history by winning a fourth consecutive term. How has this come about?

This question is being asked for quite some time. My view is we have been getting in all these elections positive votes. It is not just negative; we have been getting positive votes. That is because people have understood from their experience that we are implementing seriously the programme we set out before them in our election manifesto; and that with the limited powers we have—of which also we make them conscious—we have been able to advance in a significant manner.

As for the negative features—our disabilities are there and we are unable to implement some of the programmes—they know it is not because of us, or the efforts which we have been making. It is because of the Central government’s wrong policies towards the Left Front government here—they know that. For instance, in the field of industries. It all depends on the Central government. Small-scale industries, cottage industries, we have the largest number (of these) in India. But the middle kind of industries and bigger industries, modern industries which need licences from Delhi, there we have not been able to advance very much—except during the last one-and-a-half years, after this petrochemical complex, the permission for which we received from the Central government. Now things have opened up as far as the industrial field is concerned.

The Left Front seems to have entrenched itself exceedingly well in the rural areas of West Bengal. Could you elaborate on how this has been possible and what are the policies which have made it possible?

That is exactly what I am saying. When we talk about the ‘limited powers’... you see, under the Constitution, we have more powers in the field of agriculture and that we have utilised fully. Land reform, the kind of land reforms we have had here, was never there in West Bengal before; it was there nowhere else in India.

Similarly, the panchayat system, Panchayati Raj (as it is being called), which has decentralised powers in this period—it is seen nowhere else in India. We have elections for local government in the same way as we have for the Assembly and the Lok Sabha. We have a law under which we have to have elections at particular periods. There is no such law anywhere else in India. So this democracy, this aspect of democracy, also people have understood.

And people means not only the people in the villages; in the towns too, they have understood it. They see we have municipal elections. Whether we lose or win—we have been winning most of the seats, most of the municipalities—we don’t bother about that; we have to have elections. This is a very big thing which you don’t see anywhere else in India. They go on postponing these elections! And by getting the people’s support... you see, what we say is that we don’t rule just from here, from Writer’s Building, our headquarters, but we take the support of the people, through their mass organisations, of the workers, peasants, the middle classes, the students, the youth, women and so on.... We are in contact with them. This is the way.

There is a feeling here... some people, the bigger industrialists and some others were a little suspicious of us, naturally (laughs). But now, they have seen through their experience that—of course, we are with the workers; of course, we believe in class struggle; we believe that workers, if they have no alternative, they have to go on strike. That is quite legal and under the Constitution.

But they also know that we are for the advance of our economy; and in that we recognise that the private sector has a big role to play, a significant role to play; and they have seen through their experience that nowhere else does such peace exist in India as here in West Bengal. So now they are somewhat reconciled to the fact that they can carry on their operations here, together with us.

The panchayat system, its impact on both the formulation and implementation of poverty alleviation programmes in rural areas, like the Food for Work Programme and the IRDP. What has been the experience of the Left Front government with regard to this?

Our experience, I can tell you, has been very good. Because poverty alleviation programmes are there; the Central government has some programmes... and we im- plement some of them. But actually in the field, we have been able to do something. That anybody who goes to the countryside will see... that we have distributed land, we have given them quality seeds, we have linked them up with the banks. Then, in the formulation of our Plan, we go right down, you see.

In the districts also we tell them, “You go right down and get the people’s opinion as to what exactly has to be done in various fields, various sectors, our departments and so on.” All these together then come to us. We place it before the Planning Board and it goes through that. So in the formulation of the Plan, it is there; and in implementation, 50 per cent of the budget of the government is spent through the panchayats and the other local bodies, the municipalities. This has never been there before.

Would it be correct to say that the employment situation for the rural poor, through land reforms and panchayats, has improved considerably during Left Front rule?

You are right. In the panchayats, this has happened. We have created mandays, millions of mandays through this. Outside the agricultural operations, throughout the year almost, they get some work or other—that we have been able to do. But that, unfortunately, we have not been able to do in the towns and the cities. Only a year-and-a-half back, we took a decision: we pay some unemployment assistance—that is nothing, only Rs.50 a month—to those whose names are in the employment register. But that doesn’t really solve the problem. So to alleviate the sufferings of these people—the unemployed boys and girls—the self-employment scheme was evolved. There we have an agreement with the banks where they give loans to the extent of 75 per cent; and we make up the 25 per cent. Ours is not a loan, but a subsidy.

You made the point that industrialists who were initially suspicious realised that even as you are for workers’ rights and the class struggle, you are also for the advance of the economy. Now, in that context, how do you see the role of the organised working class movement in a State like West Bengal where the Left Front government is in office?

Well, the working class is divided, but the vast majority supports us. The CITU is the organisation of the working class which supports us. But we make it a point—when there are disputes with the management and so on—to call everybody, whether recognised or not recognised. If they can’t settle among themselves—that is, the workers and the management—then they come to the Labour Department. There is a lot of work to do in that respect; and they have done it quite successfully. Without strikes, we have had very good agreements with various industries—like tea, like engineering and so on. This has happened. But, of course, it doesn’t mean that strikes have stopped. In individual cases, strikes are there. And we have told the managements and the owners that if no settlement is arrived at and we think that the workers’ cause is just, and they go on strike, we support them. Very clearly, we tell them!

How do you see the industrial situation now? And where do you go from here?

I think that has opened up. You see, last year. . . I told you (in an earlier interview) how we got this sanction—for which I had been waiting 12 years—on this petrochemical complex in Haldia; that has now come. We are tying up the finances, and so on; a little bit is left over, that we’ll do just now. And then this polyester fibre plant, another Rs.500 crore project. These are big projects with big companies—one is with the Tatas; the other is with the Ambani group. So like that, some others from outside West Bengal are also coming.

Could you give us an idea of your philosophy of, your outlook on, Centre-State relations?

I have said already that in a vast country like India, this won’t do. We put out a paper in 1978—we came into the government in 1977, and in 1978 we prepared a paper. It was discussed all over India. Indira Gandhi was alive then. After the 1980 election which returned her to power, she set up this Sarkaria Commission. That was a good thing. It took a long time, because the Congress was not interested! They didn’t give any memorandum on anything. All States, I think, gave some memorandum or other. And I think everybody was agreed that such centralisation cannot unite India. Their idea is exactly the opposite: they think by police powers, by all kinds of black laws and all that and centralisation of powers, they can keep India strong and united! And that you will get a strong Central government! We think, on the contrary, that it will be a weak government….

In the context of the outstanding performance of the Left Front, we also have this question of what has been the role of the Congress and the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] in West Bengal? Could we have your assessment of how they have fared this time and also of the process...

The Congress, unfortunately, never talks against the BJP—never! You see, during the whole of this election, they cannot show that even one leader ever talked against the BJP! Except when Rajiv came here, he spoke one or two lines against the BJP. But these Congress leaders here in West Bengal, they never did. This is the big danger....

All secular forces have to unite...

But this is a danger here... because I don’t see these Congressmen really conscious of all this!

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