With the passing away of Jyoti Basu, the curtain comes down on an entire chapter of communist history in this country. Basu may have been the last of a generation that learnt its politics in the stormy days of the anticolonial struggle and who lived through the ups and downs of politics – from the underground days of the 1930s and 1940s to the initiation into the ways of parliamentary democracy. The long engagement with parliamentary democracy was to lead to Basu’s – and the communists’ – long stint in power. And Basu was one of those rare communists for whom democracy was not a mere strategic imperative but a value to be internalized.
Basu belonged to a generation of communists who worked their way from the bottom up. Trained in Law in England, Basu returned to India, determined to work in the communist movement. Muzaffar Ahmed, the then secretary of the undivided communist party sent him to work among the railway workers. It was there, working among and organizing the railway workers that Basu entered mass politics. It was probably in this process that Basu developed his distinctive style of politics – a style that we have yet to understand fully.
Jyoti Basu’s is actually a mode or style of politics that is emergent and intuitive, that is to say, in each specific historical juncture, it allows itself to emerge from the specific context, within the given distribution of forces. It is a mode of politics where the ‘leader’, in leading, merely reads the sign of the times and the mood of ‘his/her people’ and allows him/herself to express the potentialities immanent in the situation. It is this that makes it possible for Basu to emerge as a unanimous choice, not merely in West Bengal (and not merely in the 1960s and 70s), which he ruled for two decades, but also at the Centre in 1996 (as the consensus prime ministerial candidate for the United Front). In other contexts, this role has been characterized as Bonapartism (by Marx) and Caesarism (by Gramsci) but it would be a serious mistake to read the superficial similarity alone. Bonapartism or Caesarism, as Gramsci suggests, arise in ‘a situation in which the forces in conflict balance each other in a catastrophic manner’, that is to say, they are balanced in such a way ‘that a continuation of the conflict can only terminate in their reciprocal destruction’. Caesarism thus expresses a situation or ‘a solution in which a great personality is entrusted with the task of “arbitration” in a context where the alternative would be a historical catastrophe. Bonapartism too, in Marx’s reading arises in a situation where too a ‘great’ or ‘heroic’ personality seizes power in a context where no class is strong or confident enough to take power. It too, therefore, emerges in contexts where contending forces are engaged in mortal combat.
Basu was neither Bonaparte nor Caesar. He was certainly not a ‘heroic’ personality, and not by any means a demagogue. His political appeal came from his ‘ordinariness’. His political speeches in rallies at the Brigade Parade ground, were delivered in simple conversational style, almost sounding like one-to-one conversations. No fire-spouting rhetoric; no big words whose meaning only the converted can understand.
Basu certainly emerged centre-stage in the context of immense political turmoil – both in the Bengal of the 1960s and the India of the mid-1990s but it was nowhere a catastrophic situation. It was a situation of tremendous turbulence but political power was by no means threatened. In both cases, it was the new and rising forces in politics – forces that were to change the character of politics in the decades to come (peasant and working class struggles in West Bengal in the 1960s and the lower caste and regional political forces in the India of the mid 1990s) – that sought to express themselves through the figure of Jyoti Basu. A Bonapartist or Caesarist leader is never hamstrung by a party apparatus in the way that Basu was – almost always, all through his political career. He was always in a minority in the party even though at each historical juncture, it was he more than any other leader in the party, who expressed the potentialities in the given situation. In such difficult political junctures, while others turned to the texts of a Marx or a Lenin for guidance, Basu let his being absorb the signs of life-in-turmoil around him and let his political stance simply emerge.
Thus whether it was a question of calling for an alternative government in the early 1960s (when the actual legislative strength of the party was negligible) or whether it was a question of transforming the gathering discontent on the food crisis into a powerful mass movement – Jyoti Basu (ably assisted by some colleagues in the state party), never failed to ‘seize the moment’. This same sense came into view on the question of the state’s industrial development when liberalization suddenly opened up new possibilities by dismantling the license-permit raj and the freight equalization policy. Basu moved rapidly, even inviting joint-sector investments in the state, but never really went overboard. For he sensed that the logic of rapid industrialization could lead to a dangerous rupture that could place the party in opposition to its primary support base.
Many have labelled this style ‘pragmatic’ – a euphemism for the somewhat more uncharitable term ‘opportunist’. That is to say, uncluttered by ‘ideology’. This diagnosis is, interestingly, shared by many. In the eyes of liberals, ‘ideology’ refers to doctrinairism and is essentially negative, whereas to many Marxists, it refers to purity. But for both, Basu’s style of doing politics shuns ideology. In our reckoning, both these readings are completely off the mark. Basu’s politics was certainly uncluttered by ideology but in another sense: there was nothing pre-determined about his responses. It was as if one was ‘thrown’ into a political context where all had to fall back upon was one’s political instincts. One had to always find one’s way anew. No past experience, however great and exemplary, could ever be repeated. Every time was a new beginning without precedent. That was why, when most of his colleagues were rummaging through the dusty volumes of Lenin’s selected works in that heat and dust of 1996, Basu was able to see the possibilities of a new power that could only have been molded by boldly taking the plunge. The opportunity went by, never to return again, as Basu would have known even then. He might even have mused at the comical attempts at modifications in the party programme, long after the event, for life, he knew, never waits for the correct formulation to appear before it steers it to its proper ‘historical destiny’.