July 19, 1991

A positive triumph

Print edition : February 06, 2015

Jyoti Basu. Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

Kolkata, January 2006: Jyoti Basu kicking off the campaign for the Assembly elections held that year. Photo: SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

On June 21, 1977, Jyoti Basu entered the iconic Writers’ Building as the Chief Minister of West Bengal, heading the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front. Thousands had assembled to witness the occasion, and Basu had to step out on to the balcony to address the multitude. The roar of the crowd was such that he could hardly be heard.

The Left Front’s coming to power at that time was largely perceived as something akin to daybreak after a prolonged period of darkness, with the Emergency, the naxal movement in the State, the repression by the administration as a countermeasure, and the overall political uncertainty. In the first six months after assuming power, the new government took practically all the long-term decisions that would later be the hallmark of its 34-year rule.

The very first decision that Basu’s government took was to release all political prisoners to assure people of the restoration of democracy. Of the 36 programmes promised in the manifesto, the Left Front was committed to the immediate implementation of 21. Foremost among them was land reforms. Operation Barga was introduced, giving protection to sharecroppers against eviction by landlords; minimum wages were fixed for agricultural workers; the Mahajan system was dealt a severe blow; and the three-tier panchayat system was implemented, ensuring decentralisation of power at the grass roots. All these changed the face of rural Bengal.

The Left Front at that time, comprising the CPI(M), the Forward Bloc, the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP), Marxist Forward Bloc, Biplabi Bangla Congress, and the Revolutionary Communist Party of India functioned as one single body. Later the Socialist Party and the Communist Party of India also joined the alliance. Long before the age of coalition politics, Basu had shown how to efficiently run a coalition government. But the most important achievement of the Left was empowering the poor and giving voice to the suffering of the silent millions.

After 23 uninterrupted years as Chief Minister, Jyoti Basu, on November 6, 2000, stepped down, citing health reasons, and handed over the reins to Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. However, he continued to remain the Left’s biggest draw in rallies, its star campaigner during the subsequent elections, and its most valued guide and advisor till his death.

At that critical point in Bengal’s politics, when allegations of arrogance and corruption had begun to find its way into the ruling alliance, the Left Front, with a new leader—Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee—at the helm had to face the 2001 elections.

Bhattacharjee’s chief ministership began promisingly enough. At his call for Bengal’s industrial turnaround, the party and the state appeared to be surging forward toward a new dawn ushering in a period of peace and prosperity. In 2006 the Left Front came back for a record seventh time in a row with an overwhelming victory.

From this point onward, however, the Left Front’s political fortune in West Bengal has only been on the decline. However good Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s intentions may have been to turn around Bengal’s industry-starved economy, the way the government went about implementing it, served only to alienate the poor people, particularly the farmers, who formed the backbone of the party.

The Left received its warning signs in the 2008 panchayat elections, in which its vote share dropped alarmingly. The trend was irreversible. Not only was there a disconnect between the party and the people, but between the higher echelons of party and its grass-roots workers. It performed disastrously in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections and the 2010 municipal elections. On January 17, 2010, Jyoti Basu passed away and by that time the results of the upcoming 2011 Assembly elections was already a forgone conclusion. After three successive triumphs there was no stopping Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress from defeating the Left Front.

-Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay

SEVENTY-SIX-YEAR-OLD Jyoti Basu, veteran Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader, began his fourth unbeaten innings as Chief Minister on June 25, 1991—setting something of a world record for a Communist party-led government contesting elections in a pluralistic political system. Within six months, he will be independent India’s longest-serving (without a break) Chief Minister belonging to any party.

In any objective assessment, Jyoti Basu symbolises solid political and ideological work over an extended period, fortitude and staying power and also a sharp, contemporary focus on issues that matter. He is a unique kind of leader who commands enormous mass appeal and wide-ranging respect among politicians; he is equally clearly a product of his movement.

The West Bengal Chief Minister, who met the Frontline team—the two economists, Dr K. Nagaraj and Dr Venkatesh Athreya, N. Ram and photographer K. Gajendran—in his Writers’ Building office on June 26, anticipated several of the questions. He was frank and forthright: frank in his assessment of his political opponents and forthright about the issues which matter. Further, the Jyoti Basu we met was a relaxed, friendly, accessible Chief Minister with a sense of humour and a ready chuckle. Excerpts from the interview.

The outcome of the 10th general election fought [held in 1991; it brought the Congress to power at the Centre, under P.V. Narasimha Rao as Prime Minister] 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.

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. People compare our rule with the Congress rule which was there for 28 years in West Bengal and where they had also the Central government with them. People also compare this period in which we are in the government to Congress governments which exist elsewhere in India.

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 .

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?

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, 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. And by getting the people’s support... you see, what we say is that we don’t rule just from here, from Writers’ 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.... Then chambers of commerce which are there, we also talk to them.

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; and they have seen through their experience that nowhere else does such peace exist in India as here in West Bengal.

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 Integrated Rural Development Programme (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 implement 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.

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. 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?

In the panchayats, this has happened. We have created man-days, millions of man-days, 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 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. I wish we had taken this up earlier; because only last year, the year we started this, we gave jobs to about half a million boys and girls; and now our target is to give about eight lakh jobs every year in the self-employment schemes.

In fact, you have earlier referred to the attitude of industrialists which is now changing, and you see an opening up in the last year-and-a-half or so. How do you see the industrial situation now?

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. 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.

Food processing is a new thing that is happening in West Bengal; and we have got some people from outside who are taking an interest in this. The Tatas are also interested in agro-industries and things like that, which they will take up (they said) after this election was over. Just before the election we had a discussion like that. That will open up huge possibilities in West Bengal in agriculture, in biotechnology and all that in which they have an interest.

The thing that has not come out very much, but stands out from what we have learnt in the last couple of days, is the achievement of West Bengal in small industries. You referred to the fact that in cottage and small industries, West Bengal is No. 1 in the country. What has been the specific policy on this?

Yes, we have the largest number in the country. Because for that, we don’t need licences from the Centre and things like that! Of course, for raw materials, bank assistance and all that, we need that help; but anyway, we are carrying on. And that is labour-oriented, so it is very useful to us. Particularly our cottage industry, that was absolutely down and out. You know, Tamil Nadu had done very well in cottage industry earlier—I don’t know what is happening there now—it had done very well. We were nowhere near that, you see. But now for the last few years, there has been tremendous advance in this area in West Bengal.

Could you give us an idea of your philosophy of, your outlook on, Centre-State relations? We know you have spoken about this subject in Madras and elsewhere, but could you sum it up for us?

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. After the 1980 election, which returned Indira Gandhi 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. Because you need the cooperation of the people and that you can get by placing your trust in the people—not by insulting the people and creating all kinds of confusion among them in regard to the Centre. This has been our idea. So you need strong States in order to have a strong Centre. That is our view.

Could we ask you some questions on the national scene? The Prime Minister has stated, in cricketing parlance, that the Congress is like a famous batsman who fell just one short of a century but that didn’t mean that he did not score well. How do you view the performance of the Congress in the 10th general election?

The Congress ultimately did a little better than at least some of us thought. But that is because, it is very clear, Rajiv’s assassination helped the party in the second stage… wherever elections were being held. Except in U.P. and Bihar, I think they were helped. The figures are clear…. In Andhra Pradesh and in some other places. But here, fortunately, our election was over by then. So that helped them. Otherwise, I don’t think they would have got these figures which are there with them now.

What do you see as the agenda before the nation now? In terms of the polity and also the economy?

The agenda, you see… people have been talking about stability. Where is the stability? Stability—even now it is not there. Then the agenda is—we are a bankrupt nation; there are these economic policies…. Now they have promised so many things… one crore jobs a year.... Then in 100 days they would bring down the prices [of essential commodities]! It is all absurd; you see they knew they were absurd. This is the trouble with the Congress. They try to mislead the people— by saying things which they can never do.

The Union Finance Minister [Dr Manmohan Singh] has also said that we have no alternative but to go for the IMF loan… and he has said why should economists scare people about the multinationals… they give us technology, they are good and so on.

That we do not know… we have some other views. But as far as this [IMF] loan is concerned, I have said already when I was in Delhi—television was asking me for my view—I said, “My view is that we have been opposing these conditionalities of the loan.” But now they should tell us—for this last thing which we want from the IMF—what are the conditionalities? How will it affect the Indian people? In which sectors do they want us to do what? …

There has been a democratic demand that there must be a law freezing the status quo, as of August 15, 1947, for all religious monuments and places of worship. This is in the party manifestos excepting for the BJP.

I think we are agreeable to this except this…. As far as this Ayodhya thing is concerned, we say—either you settle it amongst yourselves, or leave it to the court.

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