This is a Guest Post by MONOBINA GUPTA
While waiting endlessly at the CPI-M headquarters in Delhi, we, the Left-beat reporters, often used to say how incredibly dull the beat would be in the absence of Jyoti Basu, Indrajit Gupta, and Harkishen Singh Surjeet. With their distinctive personalities and distinct style, each one had livened up the tedious job of keeping track of the Left parties and their leaders. Indrajit Gupta would speak in a baritone voice, trotting out gruff answers; the ever-amiable Harkishen Singh Surjeet, never failed to pick up the phone, was always ready to share a laugh with us. But of these three colourful Communist stalwarts, it was Basu who used to keep us most preoccupied, with his ‘read-between-the-line’ one-liners, exasperatingly short, brusque replies, sometimes even with outright sarcasm or rudeness.
Invariably uneasy about attracting the cold, deadpan look so typical of Basu, and his manner of speaking in cryptic, monosyllables, I used to balk at putting questions to him. At the same time as reporters we could not abandon the hope, however fragile, of extracting a brief, cutting response from Basu, even if it left us wondering for the next half hour what it exactly meant! The joke among us was that even a terse one line from the redoubtable Basu was more newsworthy than expansive responses from Delhi’s leaders. So there we would be on Basu’s heels, the moment he landed in the Capital for his Party’s politburo and central committee meetings; we would queue up before Banga Bhawan, where he would be put up, then chase him down to the Party office, keeping pace with him as he walked from the car to the lift. Till the last second, when the door of the lift would close, we would keep trying. Unraveling the famous Basu-speak – and more importantly – getting him to talk was a specialization in itself.
Basu carried with him the aura of a demigod. His party comrades were fond of describing Surjeet and Basu, political soul mates, as their living legends. It was of course another matter that throughout their lives, the two remained a minority within the CPI-M; whether it was on the question of backing the Congress in order to keep the BJP out, or in 1996, of participating in a third-front backed coalition government. The majority within the Party refused to allow Basu to wear the mantle that could have anointed him the first and likely the last Communist Prime Minister. In vain did more than a dozen Chief Ministers and top Congress leaders beg the CPI-M to relent. Through the hectic parleys, the long drawn Party meetings, finally vetoing his Prime Ministership, Basu wore his trademark expression; his face was impassive, revealing not a whit of the disappointment he must have felt. Later however he did break his stoic silence, telling the media that his Party had indeed committed a ‘historic blunder’.
Abani Roy, leader of the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) called me up this afternoon to say it was time for ‘Shesher Kabita’ (Last Poem) and that Basu had been put on the ventilator. I thought that the title of Tagore’s classic poem did indeed reflect this moment of loss. With Jyoti Basu’s passing away would end an entire epoch of the Communist movement, the restless 50s and 60s, the years when driven underground by terrible repression, the Party went from strength to strength and then wrested the historic win of 1977. West Bengal remained under Basu’s stewardship for more than two decades. The Left Front has ruled without a break for over 30 years now, an incredibly long tenure in the history of any political party and government.
Today it is teetering on the verge of collapse. As Abani Roy said, it was better this way – that Basu did not have to see the historic defeat that now seems to stare his Party in the face.
Growing increasingly frail, fading away from the public gaze, in the last couple of years, Basu watched from the sidelines as the government he once presided over for so long, slid into its worst ever crisis. His absence will be felt more deeply than ever before in the critical days ahead, at the time of the assembly polls, one year from now. Basu’s successor, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, is grappling with a crisis that now seems beyond salvage.
Could Basu have made a difference in this seemingly irretrievable situation? Probably not. After all it was he who had presided over the ‘Party- society’ for more than 20 years, watching it grow and spread its tentacles till the domination of the Party was complete; till governance and CPI-M became one and the same in West Bengal. Political violence was alarmingly high even during Basu’s Chief Ministership. The first major Party and government-sponsored incidence of violence came early in the rule of the Left Front with the massacre of refugees in Marichjhanpi in 1978. At the end of the day Basu did happen to be the most well known face of a Party that till today remains deeply Stalinist.
In less than half a decade Bhattacharjee has brought the CPI-M and the Left Front to the brink of disaster. Ironic indeed that West Bengal’s new industrial policy was introduced by none other than Jyoti Basu in the wake of economic liberalization. But he preferred, unlike Bhattcharjee, to go slow. Basu’s critics blamed him for not fast pacing the reforms, something his successor did, destroying in that process the political essence of the Left Front’s existence. It was perhaps Basu’s realization that the peasants and the poor who are the spine of the Left Front would hit back if betrayed, that had made him slow to act on reforms.
In his political autobiography, Jotodur Mone Pore (As Far as I can Recollect), Basu wrote:
“In the blink of an eye so much time has passed. I have spent more than 50 years in active politics. When I joined politics, the national movement in our country had reached a critical stage. The question in front of us was not only how to free our country but also how to build it after independence. The main objective in front of us was the liberation of the poor in this country”.
Like Surjeet and Indrajit Gupta, Basu did stand apart from the rest of the present leadership. Was it his turbulent political past, his role as a leading organizer in West Bengal’s food movement, his record of leading struggles, evading the police net, and his special brand of radical politics, that lent him his special aura? Honed by the CPI-M’s militant politics of yore, long before it occupied the seat of power, Basu belonged to a generation of Communists who are now almost extinct.