Passing of a communist icon

  • Opinion
  • Monday, 25 Jan 2010

Although the late Jyoti Basu played an important role in breaking the Congress monopoly at the central government and in West Bengal, he is remembered more for the negatives than the positives.

JYOTI Basu, who died on Jan 17 at the ripe old age of 95, was the Chief Minister of West Bengal for a record 23 years and a veteran of the Communist movement for nearly seven decades.

Neither in his long stint in power nor in his lifelong service to the Communist cause did he achieve anything extraordinary. There were far more negatives than positives against his name.

The tallest Indian Communist leader failed to expand the influence of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) beyond the borders of his own state. Indeed, he died at a time when there were signs of the party losing its grip over West Bengal as well.

Yet, Basu did play an important role in breaking the Congress monopoly on power both at the central government level and in West Bengal.

Like most of his party colleagues from the pre-Independence years, Basu too came from a well-to-do family, acquired a degree from one of the more prestigious British universities, and joined the “revolutionary movement” as a full-time soldier of the Communist Party first in the UK and later in his native West Bengal.

He devoted his entire working life to the “party”, organising railway workers in the initial years and then taking up political work.

A soft-spoken, gentle-mannered Bengali Bhadralok in private, Basu soon became the face of the party in West Bengal, while Communist apparatchiks like the late Pramod Dasgupta laid the hardcore party line.

The contradictions in his private and public personas revealed themselves when early in his stint as the West Bengal Chief Minister his party cadres virtually ran a parallel government, extorting money, harassing the so-called “bourgeoisie”, and forcing industries and businesses to close shop and re-locate outside the state.

Once the industrial, business and cultural hub of the country, Calcutta (now Kolkata), the capital of the state, was soon denuded of talent in all these diverse fields as the self-appointed defenders of Marxist revolution enforced their arbitrary writ.

All through the mayhem, Basu’s police either looked on passively or, worse still, joined the Marxist thugs to perpetrate trouble for the peace-loving citizenry. So widespread was the fear of the Marxist mobs that a vast number of middle-class professionals too re-located outside the state.

The flight of capital from West Bengal found reflection in the declining economic growth, poor infrastructure and a lower human development index.

Though he consolidated the CPI (M) grip over the voting classes, there was hardly any improvement in the lot of the poor. Poverty was rampant despite the uninterrupted sway of Basu over the state for 23 years.

Yes, in his first five-year term, the most creditworthy act was the land reforms. Called Operation Barga, under it hundreds of thousands of share-croppers were given permanent rights to land tilled by them for decades, a progressive step, no doubt, which fetched the CPI(M) long-term electoral capital.

All else was meaningless. The state was laid to waste, losing its head-start when he took over in manufacturing as the fear of reckless trade unionism gripped the captains of industry and commerce.

There was increasing lawlessness both in Calcutta and in the hinterland, with the “party” cadres enforcing their own version of the peoples’ justice. The state began to lag behind even in literacy and education as the Marxist cadres influenced recruitment of government teachers and other staff.

At the peak of the Basu reign, Calcutta would go without power for 10 to 12 hours daily, the traffic in the city would come to a halt due to some red morcha (protest march), and there would be a few gheraos (siege) of industrial or commercial establishments by the party-affiliated trade union in support of its demands.

In short, ordinary everyday life became unbearable for most people in urban Bengal, thanks to Basu’s long rope to the Marxist cadres. Having made the administration subservient to the dictates of the party, Basu let loose near-anarchy in the state.

It was under his watch that militant Maoist groups (Naxalites in the local parlance) yet again raised their head, holding sway over large tracts of rural Bengal. Frustrated by the failure of the Marxist-led government to provide them succour, the peasantry in a number of districts switched loyalty to the armed Maoist groups.

With no new industries, and a large number of old ones shut or shifted out of the state, the unemployed youths in rural Bengal began to look up to Maoists as their saviour.

So, when the rest of the country made the transition from a controlled licence-quota raj to an open, globally integrated economic system, Bengal was not ready for it.

After all, Basu had not only railed against computerisation in government and industry fearing job losses, he had also stopped the teaching of English in junior schools. The Communists had doctrinaire opposition against liberalisation of the economy.

Basu was offered the prime minister’s post back in 1996 by the non-Congress, non-BJP parties but the Politburo denied him the honour, reasoning that he would not be able to implement the Marxist agenda.

Basu had later called the Politburo decision a “historic blunder”. But given his lacklustre record in West Bengal, not many Indians believe that the country lost anything when he was denied by his party the chance of become PM.

When all is said and done, one feels sorry for Basu. He could have achieved much but failed to do so because he never ever freed himself from the shackles of the party ideologues who laid down the policy, nay, the politics for him to pursue.

An Oxbridge-educated man with upper-crust habits and a weakness for all the good things in life, Basu could well have become the single most important factor in widening the influence of the Communists had he acquitted himself well as West Bengal Chief Minister.

The Communists remain confined to two-and-a-half states, that is, West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura, because under them the administration fails to rise above the usual “bourgeois” humdrum, giving little reason for the poor and the marginalised masses to turn to them in other states.

Mercifully, Basu did not live to see the fall of the Communists in his own home state. In the State Assembly election due next year, the rabidly anti-Marxist Mamta Banerjee, currently Railway Minister and the boss of the Trinamool Congress, is widely believed to be in a commanding position to wrest power from the Communists.

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