The Pragmatic Comrade
So there we were at 3 Hailey Road – West Bengal Bhawan, the temporary sanctuary for all Bengali babus and netas visiting national capital. Fixing an interview with the granddaddy of the Communists especially a decade back, when he was still in-charge at Calcutta, had not been a joke, and thus the pitched anticipation of meeting Jyoti Basu was only inevitable. When he walked in with a battery of men, whose purpose was unclear considering that our security frisking was already complete, I was stumped for a minute. My God! I thought, “What a frail man!” He looked much tinier than he seemed in photographs or television. Wearing starched and spotlessly white dhoti kurta, he got down to business quickly. Soft spoken, yet firm, his age and experience were visible in his even tone and somber but expressionless countenance. Tough questions, easy ones, harsh realties or missed opportunities; he spoke on all issues not just like a seasoned politician, but a man who had weathered many a storm. Very little seemed to vex or please him, even if there was a sting in a comment that we put to him or an acknowledgement of his stature. Nevertheless, he spoke with conviction and, of what I could sense, a certain honesty. He admitted even bitter truths while retaining his archetypal optimism about his Communist ideology. To begin with, he gave us some gems about his past, of days before independence and about an era that was rich in ideas and ideals. He was in England from 1935 till 1939, studying law, when he received his first introduction to the Marxist ideology. So affected was he by its principles that he was soon neck deep in activities organised by the students union or the London Majilis, as it was called. “We held lectures, distributed pamphlets and taught illiterate Indians in East London, so that they could earn a better salary. We also took out a monthly paper. Those were very stirring times” Basu was soon elevated to the post of General Secretary of the student’s body, but returned to India just three months before the Second World War and joined the Communist Party of India. “You see, the party was banned and all its prominent comrades were either in jail or underground, so it fell upon me to do the work that we could in the open. Our party became legal only in 1942.” In 1947 came independence. Jyoti Basu remembered the moments in Kolkata which were pregnant with joy and tears: “I was there with happiness, but also a little unhappiness because we got a truncated India. Yet, we were happy that at least we got independence.” Recalling India’s journey since then, the one leader Basu was most vocal about was Indira Gandhi. His first reminiscences were of their days together in England. “She was with Feroz. We were all together in fact. But she wasn’t keeping very good health. So she couldn’t study properly. Still we went to demonstrations together, marching down to Trafalgar square.” Basu’s assessment of her of later days when she became the most powerful entity of the country was mixed but unbiased. “No, no…she did achieve something, no doubt. She was strong willed and fearless, but she committed blunders like the Emergency, that wasn’t right.” He mockingly added: “She said she did that to ‘shake up’ the country. But everything went the other way.” The Marxist leader was particularly critical of the culture of sycophancy that Indira cultivated. “This is what Feroz didn’t like,” he said indicating one of reasons for the couple’s strained relation. And despite being to Bengal what Indira was to India, Basu didn’t bat an eyelid when criticising cult politics. “Personality cult is no good. Marxists cannot accept this. An individual has a role, but when a person becomes a cult, it has a negative effect.” The doyen of Bengal politics was particularly disapproving of falling values in society and politics and blamed people for being nonchalant about corruption and too embroiled in caste politics. “If the realisation is there, only then can you change or adopt new policies…People have got used to it. My question is why are the corrupt politicians being entertained by the people?” On whether judicial activism was a solution, Basu was cautious. “Judiciary has taken over a part of the executive which is bad for the country ultimately, especially for us in a democracy. And we can’t even stop the Supreme Court judges as the problem has become so widespread. Eventually we must get morality back in politics.” The grand old man of politics did not seem to agree with Ambedkar over reservation based on caste. He felt that the reservation scheme had a role in the initial years after independence, but had now outlived its utility. “Reservation was okay, but only for a few years. It is not helping now. There are only a few jobs. If we need 100, we have 50 and we keep fighting over them.” According to Basu, the problem could be resolved if we developed the countryside, where 70 percent of our population dwells. “Look at land reforms. No action is being taken. As a Chief Minister of West Bengal, I too attend a lot of central government meetings, but no one talks about all this.” What I liked about Jyoti Basu was that he never failed to hold the mirror to himself. He was open about his party’s shortcomings, as well as his own. For example, when Sonia Gandhi decided to take a plunge into active politics he had dismissed her as “just a housewife”. With passing years, as she proved her mettle, Basu stood corrected saying “She has learnt a lot, and I have much respect for her.” Jyoti Basu also did not flinch when he accepted “the historic blunder” that his party had made by not letting him take up the Prime Minister’s post in the United Front government in 1996. Undoubtedly, it would have been a golden opportunity to implement policies that were top priority on the Left’s agenda. There could have also been no better prospect than that to spread the Red flag across India rather than just in the restricted pockets of West Bengal, Tripura and Kerala. The veteran leader not only rued the missed once in a lifetime chance, he also lived to see his idea of the Third Front crumble in later years. The biggest shock for him, the seasoned politician confessed, was the collapse of the Soviet Union which proved to be a setback for the Communists in India. “That was a development that I thought would never happen. But it has happened. History moves in its own way. This has pushed back socialism all over the world. We too have fallen back; there is no doubt about that.” He pointed to the new global order, while citing the example of China. “Everyone has changed. Socialists can’t be dogmatists. The Chinese say ‘learn from the truth’. We too must make alterations.” In his concluding years as Chief Minister of West Bengal, after an unbroken stint of nearly 23 years, Jyoti Basu realised that his state had missed the bus of industrial growth and had finally opened the doors for foreign investment. “We must not stay back. We must either build or import technology, but the idea behind it should be self reliance.” “Why are we so scared of foreigners, I say? They will come because ours is a huge market. I ask some Americans, ‘Do you know who I am?’ They say that when they shave in the morning, they only think about the profit they will make!” Considering the labour unrest in West Bengal over investments, his practical words about tackling unions nearly sound philosophical today. He prescribed close conversations between the management and labourers, wherein terms and conditions of recompense could be set and assurances for peaceful strike-free five years given as quid pro quo. At a time when the reins of the CPM are being held by a lobby that is imprisoned by dogmatic shackles, Basu singularly stood out as one, who was open to fresh ideas and alliances. He was among the lone voices emanating from Communist camp in favour of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Indo-US nuclear deal, showing that though old, he was more pragmatic than the new heirs of the party. Unfortunately, he was asked to keep his silence. At his core, I found Jyoti Basu to a realist, who was also a dreamer. The contradictions existed in mutual harmony. His mind always propelled him to take decisions based on ground realities, but his heart forever sang the socialist anthem. At no time was this peculiar marriage of dual values more evident than at the closing moments of the interview. While Jyoti Basu was deeply conscious of his eminence in the party, he never let it go to his head. “A man doesn’t last forever. In West Bengal too there shall be no problem without me. I am who I am because of the party. The party does not depend upon me.” About the declining fortunes of the CPI(M), he had said, that remained a “big question”. “I don’t think we get the ears of the people. They are too divided by castes, backgrounds etc. We need to combine into a class to bring fundamental changes. I must admit we have failed to achieve that.” In those dying moments of his interview, he revealed quintessentially the man that he was; vowing to remain untiring in his efforts, till the very end… “The task is set out for us. If our mass base doesn’t expand, it will spell trouble. Status quo is not adequate. We must keep working towards achieving our goal of spreading socialistic values. As long as I am alive and my health permits, at least I will keep working towards it….” He shall be sorely missed.
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