The Legacy of Jyoti Basu
Jyoti Basu, arguably the most familiar face of the CPI(M) in the country and the last surviving member of the party’s founding polit bureau, passed away in Kolkata on 17 January. In the course of his marathon political journey spanning nearly seven decades, he served for an unprecedented 23 consecutive years as the Chief Minister of West Bengal. Basu is also famously remembered as the only Left leader who had been offered the Prime Ministership of the country in 1996, an offer that was declined by his party even as Basu openly differed with the party calling its decision a ‘historic blunder’. Four years later, Basu stepped down from power in November 2000 when his health started failing, a graceful act which never really received the popular recognition it deserved. Yet, even as he relinquished his official responsibility as Chief Minister, he never ‘retired’ from his role as a leader of his party. “Communists never retire”, was his famous statement and he really lived it.
Beginning as a trade union organizer in the early 1940s, he was elected to the Central Committe-e of the undivided CPI in 1951. From 1953 to 1961, he was secretary of the West Bengal provincial unit of the CPI and remained a PBM of the CPI(M) since its inception to 2008. In 2008, he stepped down from the PB, but the CPI(M) CC chose to retain him as a permanent invitee to the PB. Even though Basu never became the General Secretary of the CPI(M), along with EMS Namboodiripad and HKS Surjeet, he left a defining imprint on the political evolution of the CPI(M) till perhaps the decisive hour of 1996 when the party differed from and prevailed over his political judgement (it was another matter that four years later, the CPI(M) ‘updated’ its party programme to include the possibility of participating in a bourgeois government at the centre). In their own ways EMS, Surjeet and Jyoti Basu personified three key strands in the centrist paradigm of the CPI(M) – EMS as the party’s principal ideologue, Basu as the party’s chief parliamentary administrator and Surjeet as the party’s ultimate negotiator in bourgeois politics.
Jyoti Basu belonged to the generation of early Indian communists who got their first lessons in communist politics under the tutelage of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Returning to the country after finishing his study of law in London, he soon became a close confidant of the underground core of the CPI leadership in Bengal. In 1944, he became the founding secretary of the Bengal Assam Railroad Workers’ Union and it was from the railway workers’ constituency that he won his first election to enter the pre-Independence Bengal Provincial Assembly in 1946.
All through the 1950s and till 1967, Basu remained the leader of opposition in West Bengal Assembly. In 1967 and 1969, he became Deputy Chief Minister in two short-lived UF governments. In 1972, the Congress regained power in West Bengal through a widely rigged election. That was the only occasion when Basu lost, and the CPI(M) boycotted the Assembly till 1977 when the party surprisingly won a clear and emphatic majority and went on to form government together with its Left Front allies (the CPI was still in alliance with the Congress and not part of the Left Front) under Basu’s stewardship.
Most of the early leaders who had entered the communist movement in India through the CPGB route had inherited the notions that prevailed among communists in Britain or Western Europe. They had little knowledge of or interest in the onward revolutionary march of the Chinese communists, and in any case they did not see the relevance of the Chinese experience in the Indian context. Even when peasant uprisings like Tebhaga and Telanagana clearly indicated the revolutionary potential of a profound rural awakening, and the situation was pregnant with possibilities of a radical popular advance, this leadership failed to recognize or grab this opportunity and subjected the entire movement to the constitutionalist orientation and parliamentary perspective they had absorbed from their CPGB schooling. All through his marathon political innings, Basu remained a typical representative of this breed, the only aberration being his decision to side with the CPI(M) at the time of the split in 1964 even as almost all his comrades from his London days remained with the CPI.
As subsequent years proved time and again, for him, this decision to part ways with the CPI was more a practical political move and in no way did it mean any rethinking of, let alone rupture with, the reformist parliamentary perspective of the CPI. The growing popular support for communists in opposition to the ruling Congress in West Bengal must have convinced Basu, the pragmatic political leader of the masses, of the possibility of the Left successfully challenging the Congress hegemony in state politics. His assessment proved right as the CPI suffered its maximum marginalization in West Bengal, overtaken not only by the CPI(M) but also by parties like the Forward Bloc and the RSP. It was only by returning to the CPI(M)-led fold after 1977 that the CPI could subsequently save itself from becoming totally extinct. But the same Basu remained a most vocal proponent of strategic partnership with the Congress in national politics, hoping that this will reinforce the CPI(M)’s electoral edge over the Congress in West Bengal.
Asked about the possibility of a Congress-led coalition coming to power at the Centre, in the midst of the May 2004 election campaign, Basu’s candid and precise answer to a TV interviewer was: “that’s what we are hoping for, that’s what we are working for.”(“Walk the Talk”, Shekhar Gupta in conversation with Jyoti Basu, NDTV 24X7). In their condolence messages, Congress leaders have rightly recalled him as a key architect of the UPA. When the CPI(M) eventually withdrew support to the UPA in the wake of the Indo-US nuclear deal, Jyoti Basu had made it abundantly clear that he did not approve of this course. Somnath Chatterjee has now gone on record saying Basu had advised him not to tender his resignation from the post of the Speaker. Another Basu protégé, Subhas Chakravarty, had ridiculed the very idea of countering the Congress on an anti-imperialist plank arguing that anti-imperialist unity in India was unthinkable without the Congress. Incidentally, like the Basu interview in May 2004, this interview, which turned out to be Chakravarty’s last TV interview before his rather premature death a few weeks later, was also televised in the middle of the May 2009 Lok Sabha elections.
Most Basu admirers tend to attribute the current downslide of the CPI(M) in West Bengal as well as national politics to the party’s ‘growing deviation’ from the Basu legacy. Many of them believe that the rot started with the party preventing Basu from accepting the offer of Prime Ministership. Basu himself also believed that had he become the Prime Minister of a Congress-supported United Front government in 1996, history would have taken a different course. Basu admirers believe that with his record of leading a coalition government for decades, he would have given a stable coalition at the Centre too thus preventing the BJP from usurping power in 1998. And some even argue that under Basu’s leadership the UF government could also have moderated the neo-liberal economic agenda with an ‘aam aadmi’ flavour, thereby denying the Congress the chance to invent the UPA and recover its lost ground with the help of its renewed pro-poor rhetoric.
These wishful thinkers forget that however quirky history may prove at times, the balance of class forces does not take long to reassert. Jyoti Basu leading a relatively cohesive Left Front government in West Bengal under the absolute domination of the CPI(M) and Jyoti Basu heading a disparate coalition at the Centre with the backing of the Congress would have been two utterly different propositions. Instead of announcing the arrival of the CPI(M) as a leading player on the national political stage, such a government was more likely to have put the party in an awkward predicament even in its established strongholds and perhaps hastened its downslide that was triggered a decade later.
Instead of speculating about what might have happened in national politics, it is perhaps more in order to focus on what has actually been happening in Basu’s own West Bengal. Is the CPI(M) in West Bengal today paying the price for moving away from Basu’s legacy? In West Bengal, the CPI(M) never really deviated from the course charted by Basu and whatever is happening today in the state must be seen in the logical context of Basu’s legacy, which always privileged the stability of power over popular struggles for social change.
In the late 1970s, Basu may well have begun with Operation Barga and Panchayati Raj, but when the choice came to move on to the next step of giving ownership to sharecroppers and introducing collective/cooperative farming, Basu simply allowed the momentum to peter out and by the end of the 1980s the reversal of land reforms had begun in West Bengal.
Likewise, the issue of federal restructuring of the Indian polity through a bigger devolution of power and resources to the states, a pet theme of the CPI(M) articulated consistently by Basu in the early 1980s, was also abandoned midway. The backlash of ‘national unity’ that gave Congress its highest ever majority following the assassination of Indira Gandhi might have politically pushed Basu temporarily on the back foot, but perhaps what really drove him away from his one-time favourite mission of federal restructuring was the 1991 paradigm shift in economic policies engineered by Narsimha Rao and Manmohan Singh.
With the licensing era coming to an end, Basu argued that it no longer made sense to fight with the centre over more economic powers, what now had to be done was to woo private capital to come and invest in West Bengal. For Basu too, it was time for the state to retreat in matters economic and industrial, leaving the initiative primarily with big private capital, Indian as well as foreign. Within three years of the Centre announcing the new economic policies, the Left Front under Basu adopted its own version of new industrial policy. Basu’s new discourse stressed ‘industrial peace’ and discouraged ‘militant trade unionism’ – yet Bengal did not see any rise in investment, all it saw was deepening of the problem of industrial sickness, massive loot of employees’ Provident Fund and rampant violation of wage legislations. Buddhadeb has only sought to render this discourse more profound – while Basu took three years to adapt to the new policy paradigm of the Centre, Buddhadeb did better by anticipating the SEZ Act two years before Parliament passed it!
It was this new-found obsession with state-sponsored corporate-led ‘industrialization’ that led to Singur and Nandigram. When Singur happened, Basu never questioned the state government’s decision to acquire the land, he only asked why the CPI(M)-led Kisan Sabha had not been pressed into service to prepare the ground for the government and the Tatas to move in. There was also no intervention on the part of Basu in response to the huge public outcry against the serial massacres in Nandigram – if he at all intervened it was primarily to silence the debates within the Left Front.
Perhaps one could not expect any different response from Basu, whose own tenure had been marked by a series of police firings and even major massacres even though they never created the kind of impact that Singur, Nandigram or Lalgarh did in a changed situation, thanks, in no small measure, to the new media environment in the era of 24 hour TV coverage. It is important to remember that in May 1967, when the historic Naxalbari peasant uprising broke out in Darjeeling district of north Bengal, Basu was the Home Minister in the state cabinet and he promptly responded with a one-track repressive policy, rushing paramilitary forces to crush the revolt. Along with Pramod Dasgupta, then secretary of the CPI(M)’s West Bengal unit, Basu was instrumental in unleashing unmitigated state repression on communist revolutionaries. The UF government was however soon to be replaced by the infamous Congress regime of Siddharth Shankar Ray which went on to subject large sections of the Left, sections of the CPI(M) included, to a brutal reign of semi-fascist terror.
If in 1977, the CPI(M)-led Left won a clear majority in spite of its still relatively limited organizational strength and political reach, a major reason was West Bengal’s ardent desire to put an emphatic end to Ray’s repressive reign and a quest for justice and democracy. But apart from promising non-intervention of the police in democratic struggles, a promise which was soon to be violated, Basu never bothered to bring the perpetrators of massacres and countless cases of custodial killing, torture and rape to justice, instead granting them impunity and even rewards! Two years into power, Basu’s government bared its fangs against the hapless refugees who were trying to settle down at Morichjhanpi, one of the northern-most forested islands of the Sundarbans. Some four thousand families reportedly perished in the forcible evacuation drive unleashed by the government, succumbing to starvation and exhaustion as well as indiscriminate killing and rape. History will always remember Morichjhanpi as one of the cruelest instances of state-sponsored crime against humanity, even though it never had the kind of impact that Nandigram generated three decades later.
Towards the end of the 1990s, Jyoti Basu’s popular rating had started declining quite rapidly. His victory margin in the 1996 Assembly elections had already dropped considerably. If at one stage the CPI(M) had benefited from Basus’s charismatic leadership, ironically in November 2000 it was his act of stepping down which really saved the CPI(M) in the 2001 elections. This masterstroke left the TMC rather clueless for quite some time, robbing it of its very target that it had grown against. But behind the CPI(M)’s impressive electoral showing – in May 2004 it led a 60-plus contingent of Left MPs in Lok Sabha and in May 2006 it returned to power for the seventh successive term with 80% majority – the policy crisis of the CPI(M) and the LF government had been growing all along and it eventually exploded at Singur and Nandigram.
From his secluded residence at Indira Bhawan – it is ironical that Jyoti Basu lived in this Urban Development Department bungalow in Salt Lake that Indira Gandhi had inaugurated and used for her stay during the 1972 AICC session in Kolkata, and the department now proposes to turn it into Basu Museum – Basu could do little but to silently witness the growing collapse of the government he had built and led for years and decades. In a desperate last-ditch attempt to arrest the alarming electoral downslide, Basu finally appealed to Congress voters in the state to vote for the CPI(M) for the sake of ‘peace and stability’ in the state just as the CPI(M) had supported the Congress at every hour of national crisis. But the electoral tide in the state had already turned inexorably against the CPI(M) and predictably enough, Basu’s appeal fell on deaf ears. The CPI(M) failed to win any of the ten seats for which by-elections were held in August 2009.
Time had already overtaken the political trajectory of Jyoti Basu. Yet, for a long time to come Basu will surely be remembered by history as the chief architect of the most enduring social-democratic rule in a third world parliamentary set-up.