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.