Fading Red

Jyoti Basu, the architect of the Indian parliamentary Left, has left a complex, and confusing, legacy to his party

People look on as former West Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu is carried in a ceremonial hearse to a morgue in Kolkata. AP IMAGES
01 February, 2010

FOR THOSE WHO WOULD critically examine his legacy, Jyoti Basu was the master of handling crises, generating consensus and running coalitions. But his perfection of the art of the possible (which is what politics is all about) was built over years of struggle, failure, defeat and even bloodbaths. His experience of the rough-and-tumble of West Bengal’s worst phase of political instability steeled the barrister-communist into a man for all crises, a Mr Dependable when the chips were down. The trouble is that he leaves behind no worthy successor but a ragtag bunch of student leaders who feel that running India is as simple as running the students union at Jawaharlal Nehru University or Calcutta University.

The first two coalitions that Jyoti Basu joined in West Bengal as deputy chief minister in the late 1960s were utter failures, leading to imposition of president’s rule in the state, the split of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the beginning of the bloody Naxalite movement. It culminated in the bloodbath at Baranagar, where hundreds of Left supporters were massacred by Congress-supported goons, and where Jyoti Basu suffered the most humiliating defeat of his chequered legislative career, losing to a CPI lilliputian by more than 40,000 votes. But if his 15 days of ‘playing chess with death’ (if one were to reference Ingmar Bergman in his The Seventh Seal) at Kolkata’s AMRI hospital was any indication, Jyoti babu never said ‘give up’ – until he actually had to. “The man was a great fighter, as his last 15 days in hospital show,” said Basu’s politburo colleague, Sitaram Yechury.

Added to that never-say-die spirit was his ability to adapt and learn, to rise above the petit bourgeoisie meanness that breeds sectarianism; and his ability to reach out to a constituency well beyond his state and the party – which made him a leader without peer in the Indian parliamentary Left. Jyoti Basu was no party-builder, no great organiser like Promode Dasgupta, no visionary communist like Benoy Choudhury or Harekrishna Konar, who conceived the land reforms and village self-government that Basu’s administration was widely credited with.

But Jyoti Basu was the gentleman face of India’s parliamentary Left, a heady mix of Anglo-Bengali liberalism carried over from the Renaissance and a firm and decisive administrator with few compeers in both the Right and the Left of Indian politics. His handling of the Naxalite challenge and, later, the violent agitation for a separate Gorkhaland could prompt one to compare his style with that of his chosen successor, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. “Basu was proactive, he would never tolerate drift even when belling the cat was too dangerous. Buddhadeb has allowed the situations to spin out of control,” said longtime Left watcher Ashis Biswas. It is indeed a tribute to the man that Trinamool Congress chief and current Union railways minister Mamata Banerjee, 11 of whose supporters were gunned down by the Kolkata police on Basu’s orders when they were trying to storm Writers Building in 1993, went all out to praise him as a great leader, even describing him as the “first and last chapter of Left movement in the country.”

Basu’s greatest achievement was to restore peace and stability to West Bengal, perhaps the most disturbed state in the country in the 1970s; on any given day in those years of turbulence, there would be between 50 to 60 political murders in the state. Peace and stability were maintained despite the pushing through of land reforms and village self-government, a process that had the potential to generate huge social passions. In all such situations, beginning with the uprising at Naxalbari in 1967, which was spearheaded by extreme elements of his own party, Basu ensured a modicum of law and order to ensure that such sweeping changes took place within the structure of the Indian polity and without really challenging it.

His ability to hold together the Left coalition in Bengal made him the obvious choice to lead the United Front of Left, regional and lower-caste parties in 1996. “The Left should have taken that risk and allowed Mr Basu to give it a try,” says the former chief mentor of the Confederation of Indian Industry, Tarun Das, who knew the veteran rather well. Two of Basu’s trusted one-time lieutenants, former Speaker of the Lok Sabha Somnath Chatterjee and Left rebel Saifuddin Choudhury, agree. “Knowing Mr Basu, I have no doubt he would have projected the CPI (M) well beyond its turf,” said Chatterjee. “The party organisers could have then moved in,” said Choudhury. Needless to say, both Chatterjee and Choudhury are now ‘expelled leaders,’ having incurred the wrath of Prakash Karat’s, the current CPI (M) general secretary, on different occasions.

When the CPI (M) Central Committee turned down the offer to join the United Front government, depriving Basu of his chance to be prime minister, I was in Delhi covering the story for the BBC. As I caught up with Jyoti Basu at Banga Bhavan, he gave me that famous ‘historic blunder’ interview, even disclosing, in his inimitable style, the exact vote for and against the motion in the Central Committee. For weeks thereafter, his detractors in the CPI (M) had lobbied hard with me to secure the original tape of that interview, without success. I could not, as a journalist, lose the confidence of a stalwart who would give such a huge exclusive; but, more importantly, I felt that Jyoti Basu was right and the student leaders were wrong.

In 1996 India’s parliamentary Left was presented with a great opportunity to break free from its doctrinaire shackles and expand into mainland India. It lost the chance; and now it stands to lose West Bengal, because voters there are fed up with a party that shuns responsibility at the highest level. How can a party function in the Indian parliamentary system without agreeing to take political power? To consolidate your political base in the states, you need power at the Centre – and vice versa. The southern parties understand this well in an increasingly competitive political system where running coalitions and driving timely bargains are essential skills a party can’t do without. The CPI (M) never understood this – but Basu did. The trouble was – and is – that he was the minority in the CPI (M)’s decision-making body.

Four years after the ‘historic blunder,’ Jyoti Basu gave me another great BBC interview. He spoke to me for a whole hour – half in Bangla for the BBC’s Bengali Service, the rest in English for its World Service. I began by asking him about the rise of Maoism in India and Nepal and as far as Peru. I asked him whether armed revolutionary communism was back with a vengeance. Basu replied: “Wherever communists can function properly within a democratic system, they will, but where they cannot, they will be forced to take the armed route.” Are Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and P Chidambaram listening?