[This is the English version of an obituary published in Ananda Bazar Patrika (Bengali) on January 18, 2010]
By Swapan Dasgupta
Growing up in Calcutta in the 1960’s and early-1970s in a household with strongly Congress inclinations, I can vividly recall the outpouring of venom that greeted the very mention of Jyoti Basu. In those turbulent days spanning the slow loss of Congress dominance and the violent transformation of West Bengal into a “Red Fort”, Basu was at the epicentre of controversy. As the most visible Communist mass leader he was perceived by many as the evil choreographer of West Bengal’s plunge from a settled existence into uncertainty, verging on anarchy.
The image of a fiery revolutionary bent on turning the world upside down may have been sharply at odds with the benign bhadralok who missed becoming India’s first Bengali Prime Minister by a whisker in 1996, and that too as a consensus candidate. But an evolving image was a feature of a gentleman who first became a player before Independence and was in the crease for more than six decades. The Jyoti Basu held under preventive detention in 1962 by Dr B.C. Roy for his known pro-China sympathies was a very man from the venerable elder statesman who helped forge the Congress-CPI(M) understanding at the Centre in May 2004.
Few individuals can boast a more fulfilling and chequered political life as Jyoti Basu. Since the time he entered the Legislative Assembly of undivided Bengal way back in 1946, Jyoti Basu has been a decisive force in the politics of West Bengal. As Leader of Opposition from 1952 to 1967 during the days of Congress dominance, Deputy Chief Minister in the two United Front governments between 1967 and 1967, the longest-serving Chief Minister from 1977 to 2000 and elder statesman in his twilight years, Basu’s life encapsulates both the history of West Bengal and the Communist movement since Independence.
History and another generation will be better placed to assess what Jyoti babu made of the many opportunities that came his way. Did he live up the idealism of those bright young Indians from respectable homes who travelled to England in preparation of a career but ended up as revolutionary foot-soldiers of Pollitt and Palme-Dutt? Or did he, in a strange sort of way, live up to his inheritance as a pillar of respectability and stodginess? To use the imagery of Ashok Mitra, was Jyoti Basu more a Communist or more a Bengali bhadralok?
At the sartorial level, the answer was obvious. Aesthetically, there was nothing outlandish and, therefore, Communist about the man. Jyoti babu didn’t fight the class war by wearing rubber chappals and non-ironed clothes to prove his proletarian credentials. Always correct and decorous, he carried himself with an air of superiority, tinged with brusqueness. He loathed flash but liked the tasteful good life and, above all, his summer vacation in London. Jyoti babu was transparent; he wasn’t a poseur.
This innate decency endeared Jyoti babu to a state where the CPI(M) evolved from being a party of radical change to an outfit that championed Bengali regional aspirations. His natural desire to temper the rough edges of ideology made him a natural face of the party in times good and bad. But what did he make of this golden opportunity?
Jyoti Basu became Chief Minister of West Bengal in 1977 at a time when the state was engulfed by two distinct crises: an economy crippled by a decade of Left militancy and Congress high-handedness, and a civil society distorted by a perverse sense of entitlement. In his mind Basu knew that recovery was possible if Bengal could reinvent itself as a destination for profitable investment. He was also painfully aware that economic revival was possible if there was an improvement in Bengal’s work culture and decline in the 24x7 preoccupation with politics. Although the Communist victory had been made possible by the collapse of the old culture of deference, Basu knew that the state’s revival was possible by lowering the political temperature.
This was not what his colleagues believed. Initially, the party went in for radical land reforms and decentralisation of power to consolidate its hold in the countryside. But after five years, this strategy had run its course—though the political dividends keep flowing to this day. When it came to the revival of manufacturing and the creation of a new services sector, the Chief Minister found himself outvoted inside the party. His government adopted measures such as the abolition of English teaching till class 5 and the politicisation of institutions which set West Bengal behind by decades. Trade union militancy and crippling power cuts led to the decimation of small and medium industry. To the investing classes, Bengal became a big no-no. Its efficiency was limited to the organisation of bandhs.
Basu could have used his clout as the Bengali patriarch to force a reformist agenda. He chose the line of least resistance—arguing feebly for pragmatism inside the party but endorsing the collective view in public. Ideologically, he wasn’t much of a Communist but in following the “party line” faithfully, he was a model Comrade.
Jyoti Basu was India’s longest-serving Chief Minister, being in office for 23 years. Politically, his achievement is colossal. However, measured against where West Bengal stood in 1977 against where it reached in 2000, Basu will be regarded as one of the most spectacular non-achievers in recent times. He inherited a crumbling edifice and bequeathed a similar structure to his predecessor. He merely prevented the roof from caving in.
Maybe Basu’s exalted status is a reflection of the Bengali distaste for both achievement and change. Basu and Bengal were made for each other.