Jyoti Basu and the Passing of an Era

Jyoti Basu, Promode Dasgupta and Saroj Mukherjee
Jyoti Basu, Promode Dasgupta and Saroj Mukherjee

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’.

17 thoughts on “Jyoti Basu and the Passing of an Era”

  1. more obituaries to come.. Iwant to concentrate onthe the’ live wire of”historical blonder’! ComradeBasu wiil be lauded and remembered by this hot phrace..amoung all shades of groupings. How cpm dealt with his couragious ”indiscipline ” then? Kept mum as” un usual.”. The minority at the central committee then..did they stuggleed for their”subdued” line in or outside the party? Yes and no. is the answer! When prakash karatt dares to be loud in London” we are for multi party system” is it echoing Basu’s ahistorical no- blunder’?? ” a keralite with good upbringing he is not a self – taught arrogant..for good or bad.. In London he even described the maoists” misguided’!”(remember harekrishna konar’ s dilemma when his brother was in jail as naxalite).. Now letme conclude this note with some more optimisms! Ist stepfor democratisation had begun when cpm went to the slippery path of o elections in their org..what ever pitfalls and groupism ther,, itis a great begining..secondly the .”basu effect” has alleviated the block thinking to certain extent. Thirdly..some learning frm the past..has reflected in the congresses.. Jothi basu was equally adamamt as budhadev on economic policies to be pursued.. But of the attitude..”slower better../ ofcourse more to be achived.. The answer for an uncompleted left project..yes to a failed revolution- is not a retun to micropolitics./.holding more hands wtth or without gloves- ( i repeat myself) cpm will have to move…more frredom of ex preession..more sitting back and reflectction…on participating in the political process of democratic india..without adding more blunders to their record! We and left deseves it! If it so happens ..that will be the true homage to comrade BASU! ADIEU COMRADE,, TN JOYI MUSIRIS NEWS

  2. “And Basu was one of those rare communists for whom democracy was not a mere strategic imperative but a value to be internalized.”

    Really? And when was that? From the Joshi era of the CPI to the coming of the CPIM and beyond, Basu was known for the ruthlessness with which he wiped out the slightest opposition.

    But fifteen men on a dead man’s chest. Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum. Dead and be damned and the rest gone whist!

  3. Actually,while writing this,the left front rule and its rule has been auditing now(Vijay prashad’s article in Himal,south asia).Com.jyothi basu-all the leaders of a generation from its highest decision making body have gone now.
    the panchayathi raj system will be in favor of rural poor(from Pramod das gupt’s words)-one of the main slogan of post-1997 era has now turned out be the tragic story of nandigram-singur.a state-party formation ala indian parliamentary democracy-a new experiment from a cadre based party,this has led to a new question relating to the democracy
    the post-colonial liberal democratic experiment and a leninist politics in south asia led by Jyothi basu in w.bengal gives new historic lessons.How is to lead a peasant economy into industrialisation?the era of Com.jyothi basu has given these questions.

  4. Jyoti babu would be remembered for 4 Key achievements –

    1. He maintained stability in a communally charged state ( Remember riots of 1946, 1965, 1971) & a state known for militant naxalite violence. Not a single Sikh was harmed in 1984. Riots could not spread in a post Babri-demolition scenarios. He handled both with outstanding capability. Not one communal riot on a large scale happened during his tenure.

    2. Alleviation of poverty & land-to-the-tiller – No of people living below poverty level reduced to half between 1977 & 2000. Land reform pushed agricultural productivity. Irrigation facility extended to small & marginal farmers.

    3. Introduction of grassroot democracy – There used to be no panchayat or municipality election before 1977. Jyotibabu introduced both resulting in massive local participation on people in local development.

    4. Spread of literacy & primary education during his reign was phenomenal. A predominantly illiterate state in 1977 has seen a surge in number of schools and participation of rural kids into primary education in great numbers. Although he failed miserably in maintaining excellence in higher education, his government’s role in literacy & primary education should not be dismissed.

  5. RH, unfortunately, bile and sarcasm do not add up to an argument. Let us just try to think of one name from any part of the world of someone who has not erred in this respect. Leave alone formal democratic institutions, how many of us can say that, when entrusted with power, we have behaved always in the best and impeccably democratic way? I certainly cannot think of even the best democrat who has not failed in this test. And yet, if we insist one-sidedly on this fact (that inside every democrat resides a fascist), we would have to conclude that democracy does not, indeed cannot exist. Yet democracy exists, even flourishes, despite this – and the contribution in its flourishing is not without the role played by people like Jyoti Basu among many others.

    That said, let me also stick my neck out and say that there is actually little evidence to show that Jyoti Basu has eliminated all opposition with the utmost ruthlessness. Yes, he presided over a terror machinery that had gradually spread its tentacles deep into West Bengal society. It was a novel kind of machinery, very rare anywhere in the world. We, in kafila have written about all that on many occasions. Yet, it will be a travesty of any kind of serious political analysis if we were to treat Jyoti Basu as the creator and executor of that terror and that form of ruthlessness. It is necessary, in order to be able to analyse politics properly (and here, let us move away from the specifics of a Jyoti Basu and the CPM), we must look at the diverse currents and tendencies that make up any kind of politics; we must look at their specific constellation. All political formations, even the most ideologically cohesive ones, are ultimately alliances of different tendencies. Think of Gandhi in 1946, disillusioned and exclaiming that mine is a ‘cry in the wilderness’ and that ‘nobody listens to me anymore’. The fact is that in the best of times nobody in the Congress (leadership) listened to Gandhi – they simply tolerated him because he was the mass leader who alone could touch a chord in the ordinary person. It seems to me that in a very different way, Jyoti Basu’s relationship to the CPM was like Gandhi’s to the Congress.

  6. the absolute spontaniety of Basu’s … statement..historical blunder.. is a parallax/ its bluntness ..can we ignore.? No body did that either..but how this historical rarity.. happens? Two reasons! Expressions coming out of a creative mind, have no party membership! Secondly..the pangs one suffers when our own party majority ready to go uglly…ignoring his well thought out conclusion.,” participation, Yes only channel left out.. Is to – grunt… This is important! If you need a big org to fight a system..you will also need some modes of dicipline.. Then ” this basu grunt,,” is political enough…it will be remembered and discussed, long./ now how cpm lived with this” indiscipline.?. It swallowed the hook? An open question..we should pursue. these days..”I agree with most of the points raised by you.’ Adithya.. But iam captivated with the” Basu effect” now… Tnjoyi frm jerala

  7. The demise of the late comrade Jyoti Basu and the spectacle and reactions which followed thereafter provoked two, quick observations –


    Whether Calcutta pays its overwhelming, last tribute only to late Comrade Jyoti Basu or to the CPI(M) as well. Dangerous echoes of Right-wing populism is growing louder against the crude misdeeds of the party.


    Buddhadeb and his party members would wish to, ironically, capital-ize on Basu’s death in the coming elections. Death is, after all, the sovereign capital of politics.

  8. the most notable feature of co.jyothi basu-he was at office with just 30,000 members like the leninin’s party of pre-revolutionary russia.later,new members , new rural aspirations with panchayathi raj system had laid a foundation stone for a new ruling party.an establishment of Left front.
    now,that balance has been changing….and the future of cpim?a province with a limited power not a venezula- may not be attractive for people who have been watching 30 + years governance.the working class role models through karala,bengal and tripura governments-(basu said that in an interview-the hindu) have not become the role models for the vast majority of the people.the big question is here.Why?

  9. I find Aditya Nigam’s reply to RH’s comments interesting:

    “Yes, he presided over a terror machinery that had gradually spread its tentacles deep into West Bengal society. It was a novel kind of machinery, very rare anywhere in the world”… “Yet, it will be a travesty of any kind of serious political analysis if we were to treat Jyoti Basu as the creator and executor of that terror and that form of ruthlessness”… “It seems to me that… Jyoti Basu’s relationship to the CPM was like Gandhi’s to the Congress.”

    Death washes all sins in Indian polity: suddenly a leader is no longer responsible for the unprecedented state terror, which Aditya himself admits existed… Now I am just waiting for Narendra Modi to die and turn into a hero!

  10. Soumya,
    If I had the time, I would write on Narendra Modi while he is alive. After all, political analysis is hardly about moral condemnation, which is the simplistic thing to do – to say ‘I condemn’! Yes, but can that explain anything about anything? Political analysis must tell us something about why a phenomenon like Jyoti Basu or a Narendra Modi become possible? do they tell us something about ourselves (about the modern Bengali self and the modern Gujarati self respectively)? Is politics simply a matter of some bad men or are our own complexes and pathologies implicated somewhere in their rise and fall?

  11. Aditya,
    An unbiased political analysis is precisely what I am looking for, which is sadly missing from a string of obituaries on Jyoti Basu. When one analyzes the role of a person, who played an influential role in a “communist party” during the period when the party made a steady transition to a fascist agent of neoliberal interests, isn’t it a bit naïve to take a stance that he represented a “minority” in the party and “they did not listen to him”? As chief minister first, and an influential leader later, does he carry no responsibility for creation of a historically unprecedented regimented terror network which the party carefully controlled to its own advantage, initially to advance its own hegemony, and later to defend neoliberal interests? Or is the popular sympathy arising from his recent death preventing us from making an objective analysis of his role in Indian politics?

  12. Soumya, From the way you have posed the question, I am ever more convinced that what you are looking for is ‘fixing responsibility’ for what you call his party’s ‘fascism’ – ‘fascist agent of neo-liberal interests’. This is precisely what makes a travesty of all political analysis. What is ‘fascism’? what does a ‘fascist agent of neo-liberalism mean’? And what kind of serious political analysis can ignore the fact that his successors (esp Buddhadeb) saw the Basu years as wasted years? Whether Basu was in a minority or not, whether what he stood for can be defended and so on are question on which debate is certainly possible. But if the starting points are what you suggest, I must distance myself from such ‘unbiased political analysis’ :)

  13. There’s no dearth of “unbiased political analysis” either. I don’t have to bother my memory to give a few references off-hand, if that helps Mr. Datta: Ashok Malik, Jug suraiya and Shobha De (I may’ve mis-spelt- how many Ss and how many As?) in TOI, Ashok Row Kavi in South Asia Mail, Abhirup Sarkar in Anandabazar, Udayan Namboodiri in The Pioneer. Pretty apetizing menu, isn’t it?

  14. While it is true that a “Party Society” (to quote Dwaipayan Bhattacharjee ) has been systematically built up in WB, equating with Fascism is a bit far-fetched.
    JB certainly does have to bear a large part of responsibility .. but calling him a “Fascist Agent of Neo-Liberal interests” does not correspond to facts.
    Ironically, the Bengali Middle-Class, in a classic display of indecent taste, pounced on the departed soul within hours of his death for “destroying industry” which neo-liberals want to see flourishing in WB.

  15. Although a large cross-section of people assembled to pay respect to Jyotibabu after his death, it was dominated by two sections of the Bengalee society!
    1. A considerable chunk of the crowd was suburban lower middle class – a traditional vote bank of Left which Buddhadeb lost to Mamata.
    2. A great number of rural people, who came from districts around Kolkata – some of them visibly distressed! Some of them broung their entire family to pay last respect! (They hold the key to Left’s electoral debacle in 2009)
    It seemed to me that these were the two major Left constituencies whom Buddhababu managed to alienate & push towards the Congress-TMC combine.

  16. without getting into long winded arguments it can be reasonably concluded that we cannot detach JB as a person or politician for the success of 1977 and the failures since then.

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