A Reporter Remembers AB Bardhan

On 2 January 2016, AB Bardhan, a senior leader from the Communist Party of India, passed away at the GB Pant hospital in Delhi after prolonged illness. REUTERS/Kamal Kishore
04 January, 2016

In public memory, communists are usually remembered as ascetic, dour, and humourless personalities. During the many years in which I interacted with the former general secretary of the Communist Party of India (CPI), AB Bardhan, as a reporter, I found that he passed the first marker with flying colours, and failed the other two by a significant margin. Bardhan worked out of his office on the second floor of the CPI’s headquarters, Ajoy Bhavan, and had his meals in the collective mess with the rest of the party staff downstairs. In 1989, he shifted into a room in the same building and continued to live there until last year, when he was moved to a hospital because of a brain hemorrhage.

I first met Bardhan nearly two decades ago, and was somewhat taken aback when his sense of humour did not evaporate with my acidic potshots at his party for continuing to adorn the walls of Ajoy Bhavan with a photograph of Joseph Stalin. By this time, the Soviet Union had collapsed. Moreover, documents that served as evidence of the killings and stage-managed trials of the Stalinist era had made their way into the public domain.

The CPI’s office—unlike AK Gopalan Bhavan, the headquarters of the Communist Party of India-Marxist [CPI-M]—had become an adda for the Left beat reporters. Even during the Left’s years in the sun, when the CPI’s senior leader and then General Secretary Indrajit Gupta became a home minister in the United Front-led government, the culture in Ajoy Bhavan remained the same—warm and welcoming.

Bardhan took over the reins of the party when Gupta joined the Deve Gowda government. In those days, journalists would regularly throng the headquarters, which was always buzzing with activity. Our visits to Ajoy Bhavan every evening were not motivated by our hunger for news alone. The coffee and biscuits that Bardhan would invariably offer us were an equally tempting proposition after a long day. Over the years, many of us would simply drop by for a conversation with Bardhan even without the prospect of news gathering. No receptionist guarded the entry to the office of the general secretary, and no one asked us whether or not we had an appointment with him. “Comrade Bardhan” as we all addressed him, was readily available to meet us in his office after 3.30 pm every day.  Of course, this was only when he was not touring across states, addressing rallies or holding organisational meetings.

During my conversations with Bardhan, Stalin would emerge as a recurring bone of contention. Each time I sparred with Bardhan, the CPI leader would—like his other compatriots—stodgily defend Stalin and his actions, describing them as unfortunate but unavoidable in those trying times. He believed that such steps were imperative to protect the revolution as well as to beat back Hitler’s advancing army. I always differed, and would even raise my voice in the heat of the argument sometimes. Surprisingly, the self-professed votary of Stalin did not adopt conventional Stalinist tactics by dismissing me as out of hand, avoiding my calls, or ostracising me from meetings. In fact, we always parted on a note of banter at the end of our discussions. It was a pattern we followed after a particularly heated argument over the People’s Liberation Army’s mowing down of unarmed students at China’s Tiananmen Square in 1989.

A large part of Bardhan’s tenure as general secretary from 1996 to 2012 coincided with that of his CPI-M counterpart Harkishen Singh Surjeet who held the position from 1992 to 2005. In many ways, both leaders shared similar political perspectives on several issues. They regretted the CPI-M central committee’s refusal to endorse the candidature of Jyoti Basu—the former chief minister of Bengal—as the prime minister of the United Front government in 1996. Both of them also advised the Congress party President Sonia Gandhi on many critical issues between 2004 and 2009, when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government was in power at the centre. It was a common joke during that time, to refer to Bardhan as a CPI-M and not CPI man. The CPI leader, did in fact, from time to time, raise the issue of a merger between the two communist parties, only to be met with a lukewarm response from the CPI-M.

Like Surjeet and Basu, Bardhan, too, represented the quintessential dilemma faced by the communists of the post-Soviet Union era. This generation was torn between its desire to stay relevant and the conventions of Left politics. The pull of dogma almost always seemed to win over the pull of creating new rules of engagement.