Ashok Mitra

A lovable rebel

Print edition : May 25, 2018


Ashok Mitra (left) taking oath as Minister in the CPI(M)-led Left Front government in June 1977. Photo: MINATI CHOUDHURY

Jyoti Basu (1914–2010), Chief Minister of West Bengal from 1977 to 2000. Photo: SAURABH DAS/AP

Ashok Mitra (1928-2018), renowned writer, critic and political thinker, strode the worlds of economics and literature like a colossus and was in many ways the voice of the conscience of the country and the Left movement.

ON May 1, 2018, one of the most fiercely original, independent and humane voices of the nation fell silent forever. Ashok Mitra was not only an intellectual giant who strode the worlds of economics and literature like a colossus, he was also a renowned academic, one of the leading political thinkers of his time, a scathing critic of his age, and in many ways the voice of the conscience of the country and the Left movement. As the first Minister for Finance, Development and Planning of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front government under Chief Minister Jyoti Basu, he was at one time one of the most powerful politicians in West Bengal. He was a prolific writer and a master of both the English and Bengali languages, a passionate lover of poetry, a staunch and proud Communist, and one of the pioneering crusaders for the strengthening of the federal principles of the country.

Mitra was essentially a free spirit—proud, individualistic, rebellious and romantic. He refused to be bound by anything or be dictated to by anyone. The only voice he truly heeded was that of his conscience, and the only path he followed was that which was paved by his principles. Where most people in politics and public life seek—and desperately cling to—power and position, Mitra rejected them time and again when he felt he could not continue without compromising his beliefs. In 1972, he resigned from the prestigious post of the Chief Economic Adviser to the Government of India; in 1986, he quit the West Bengal Cabinet as the Minister for Finance, Development and Planning over differences of opinion with Jyoti Basu. However, even though he resigned from the government and the State Committee of the CPI(M), he remained a steadfast Communist. Expressing “profound grief” at his passing, the Polit Bureau of the CPI(M) said: “He was deeply committed to the cause of the working class and toiling masses of the country.”

Early years

Born on April 10, 1928, in Dhaka, Mitra completed his graduation from the University of Dacca (now Dhaka) before crossing over to India from the newly formed East Pakistan in 1948. For some reason, which he claimed he himself did not quite understand, he did not get admission into Calcutta University to pursue his postgraduate studies in economics. As a result, he got his master’s degree from Banaras Hindu University. After a brief teaching stint at Lucknow University and the Delhi School of Economics, he went to the University of Rotterdam where he did his doctorate under the celebrated economist Jan Tinbergen, who went on to win the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1969. On returning to India in 1956, he joined the National Council of Applied Economic Research, and then served as Officer on Special Duty in the Ministry of Finance, Government of India. He then joined the United Nations Economic and Social Commission in Bangkok, and in 1961 became a faculty member of the Economic Development Institute set up by the World Bank in Washington, D.C. After returning to India, he joined the Indian Institute of Management Calcutta. Subsequently he went to Delhi to work in the Agricultural Prices Commission, before being appointed the Chief Economic Adviser to the Government of India in 1970. He resigned from that post in 1972. In 1975, his writings were banned in India by the Emergency regime of Indira Gandhi. During this time, Mitra was invited by the Institute of Development Studies in Brighton, United Kingdom.

Stint as Finance Minister

In 1977, when the Emergency was withdrawn and the Left Front assumed office after the elections, Mitra became the Finance, Development and Planning Minister. His contribution to the Left movement during this period was immense, for it was he who gave form to the alternative economic and development model for West Bengal and was a key contributor to the evolution of the long-term economic and social policies that set the path for the Left Front’s 34 years in power in the State. From the establishment of the panchayat system to the effort aimed at decentralisation of power both at the Central and the State level, Mitra played a pioneering role in Indian politics while working in West Bengal. CPI(M) Central Committee member Rabin Deb told Frontline: “His Marxist ideology and philosophy found full expression in his work and policies as Finance Minister. He gave direction to the path the Left Front government would follow.”

Ahead of his time

That Mitra was far ahead of his time, and looked at long-term plans rather than short-term strategies, was in evidence when he was made Chairman of the Administrative Reforms Committee in the 1980s. It was Mitra who first advocated the creation of smaller districts and administrative units for better governance. Now, more than 30 years later, his advice is being carried out. He was held in such high esteem by Jyoti Basu, and considered so indispensable by the government, that after he lost from his seat in Rashbehari in the 1982 Assembly elections, the Left Front fielded him in the byelection to the Jadavpur constituency so that he could be reinstated in the Cabinet.

After Jyoti Basu passed away in 2010, recalling those days in government, Mitra told Frontline in an interview: “It was great fun. We toiled hard and we thought we would change the political map of India from the example we would set in West Bengal. You know about the land reforms, the distribution of land among the landless peasants, ensuring tenural rights for sharecroppers, the establishment of the three-tier Panchayati Raj, etc. We wanted to set up an administration that would develop from below.”

What many feel was his greatest contribution during this period was his tireless crusade to bring about a change in the Centre-State relations to pave the way for the devolution of more resources and power to the States. His efforts, under the leadership of Jyoti Basu, successfully united non-Congress State governments on the issue, leading to several important conclaves to discuss the matter. On the issue of the implementation of value added tax (VAT) by the Centre, he had even moved a writ petition in the Calcutta High Court asking the court to prohibit the West Bengal government from implementing VAT. According to him, VAT was akin to excise duty rather than sales tax, which would imply that it would fall within the purview of the Centre’s powers rather than that of the States. This, he felt, was an infringement on the basic federal structure of the Constitution. “The long-term welfare of the nation is crucially dependent on the maintenance and further deepening of the attributes of the country’s federal structure,” he had told Frontline (March 12-25, 2005). For the same reasons he bitterly opposed the goods and services tax (GST) imposed by the Narendra Modi government.

In 1986, after serious differences with Jyoti Basu (the details of which neither Basu nor Mitra ever made public), Mitra quit the Left Front government and the CPI(M). However, that did not mean a severance of ties between the two. In 1993, he was nominated to the Rajya Sabha by the CPI(M), where he continued to relentlessly oppose the neoliberal economic policies introduced by the then Congress Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao. During his tenure in the Rajya Sabha, he was also the Chairman of the Parliament’s Standing Committee on Industry and Commerce.

Tireless rebel

He was the eternal enfant terrible of Indian politics. With his pen—that mighty and elegant weapon of his choice—he waged indefatigable war against injustice, intolerance, corruption, perfidy and hypocrisy. None was spared, not even his old party, the CPI(M). He came down heavily on the Buddhadev Bhattacharjee government for its land acquisition policy for industrial purposes between the years 2006 and 2011. However, he was held in such reverence by the CPI(M) that even when he directed his most acerbic attacks against it, the party leadership never reacted with hostility. A senior CPI(M) member told Frontline: “He may have differed from the party on many issues, but we never doubted his love for the party and his commitment to the Communist movement. He was our guiding light.”

Even when he was ill, his spirit never flagged and the ferocity of his protest remained undiminished. After the Narendra Modi government announced the dissolution of the Planning Commission, he lashed out with his customary vitriol: “The liquidation of the Planning Commission is a symbolic gesture from Narendra Modi. The gesture is intended for the assimilation by the corporate sector: Ladies and Gentlemen, you were amongst the foremost to uphold and propagate my cause. You wanted me dearly as Prime Minister. One of the first things I am doing is to order the abolition of that abominable Planning Commission, which pretended to interfere in your affairs. You are now free to plunder the country in the manner you like best” ( Frontline, September 19, 2014).

Master of prose

After quitting the Left Front Cabinet, Mitra dedicated his time and energy to writing. He had always been a prolific writer and a master of prose in both English and Bengali. Apart from serious academic books on economics like the seminal Terms of Trade and Class Relations (1977) and The Share of Wages in National Income (1980), he was one of the most popular columnists of all time, writing regularly for Economic & Political Weekly (EPW) and other periodicals and newspapers.

In his writings over the years, one finds a poetic chronicling of society and its changes. He had a deep and sympathetic understanding of life and the world around him, which came through in his works. He could be tender, humorous, sad, angry and even caustic in his observations, but however harsh he may have been, however bitter sometimes, he never lost his humaneness, and he never once shied away from the truth, however brutal.

Mitra wrote in his prefatory note to his delightful Calcutta Diary (first published in 1977), a collection of his smaller articles that were published by EPW: “There is nonetheless no particular need to feel apologetic about the biases and the idiosyncrasies of the person who once wrote these essays. His biases are Bengali biases; his idiosyncrasies too are of local vintage. He is a part of his people; he has been reared by the squalor which defines Calcutta and Bengal. His loyalties are local, provincial, and perhaps even sectarian. At the same time, he can hardly disown the other stream of consciousness, which defines him the consciousness of belonging to the great, awkward, fuzzy Indian nation.” Mitra’s other popular works include From the Ramparts, The Starkness of it, and the famous A Prattler’s Tale: Recollections of a Contrary Marxist, his hugely acclaimed memoir that was also published in Bengali as Apila-Chapila.

He had a deep and intense love for Bengali language and literature and an undying passion for poetry, particularly those of Rabindranath Tagore and Jibanananda Das. Sometimes he gave the impression that he despaired of the fact that Bengalis did not give enough importance to the growth and development of their own language. Talking about Rabindranath Tagore, he once said: “As of this moment, Bengalis in India are in general keen to walk away from their native tongue. The reference here is to the Bengali middle class, who really matter in the polity and the economy. They are sure of what they want; they are in a scampering hurry to swim in worldly prosperity. The Bengali language offers no help towards attaining that goal; why waste time on it, better shift to foreign languages valued in global transactions and, above all, the language of information technology” ( Frontline December 31, 2011-January 13, 2012). In 1996, he was presented the prestigious Sahitya Akademi Award for his contribution to Bengali literature.

‘Not a bhadralok, a Communist!’

Ever civilised, gentle and courteous, Mitra could be irascible and scathing too. On one occasion, when he was still the Finance Minister, irritated by journalists who were persisting with a line of questioning related to the removal of a senior bureaucrat, he snapped: “I am not a bhadralok [gentleman], I am a Communist!” The statement became a part of his legend. Yet nothing could be more distant from the truth.

Mitra was a highly sophisticated man in manner and speech, and behind his stern and often forbidding exterior was a gentle, humane personality. Ajoy Dasgupta, senior journalist with Ganashakti, recalls an occasion that best illustrates Mitra’s innate decency and kindness: “For two continuous years, since 1996, I was given the job to go to Ashok Mitra’s house twice a week in the afternoon to collect his articles for Ganashakti, which he would dictate out to me. I learnt so many things from those sessions, ranging from politics, to economics, to language, and so on. One thing that he was always very particular about was being punctual. One day while hurrying to his flat, I slipped and fell on the road and grazed myself. This mishap delayed me by a couple of minutes, which did not go unnoticed by him. ‘You are a little late today,’ he said, but the next moment he noticed I was hurt. He immediately sat me down and personally tended to my injuries. A man of his stature, bending over and applying medicine on an insignificant youngster like me, got me quite flustered. I feebly protested saying the injuries were trivial, at which he gave me a sharp reprimand. ‘You sit down and keep quiet. It is not possible to apply medicine upon oneself,’ he told me. He even suggested that I skip the dictation session that day; but I assured him I was alright. When I was leaving, he insisted that I take the medicine back with me.”

Mitra always made it a point to see off anyone who visited him at home—be it a journalist or a party member—at the door and wait until that person took the elevator. He continued this practice even when he was very ill.

However outspoken and forceful he may have been in his writing, in his personal life he was shy and retiring. He hardly ever faced the television camera, and was most at peace away from the spotlight. He even professed that he did not wish to be remembered in any way. So what was it that Ashok Mitra considered most important in his life? He answered it himself in the concluding words of Apila-Chapila:

“ this insignificant life of mine there are two distinct and clear sense of satisfaction for me: One, that I was born to Rabindranath’s [Tagore] language and culture; and two, from the beginning, my mind and consciousness has been flooded with the illumination of Marxist thought.”