Jyoti Basu’s life encompasses the entire period of the Left’s rise and fall in India

Here are two articles in loving memory of Jyoti Basu, the eminent Indian politician belonging to the Communist Party of India (Marxist) from West Bengal.

India’s veteran Marxist leader Jyoti Basu dies
By Sailendra Sil (AFP)

KOLKATA, India — Jyoti Basu, the charismatic Indian Marxist who headed the world’s most electorally successful communist party for two decades, died on Sunday at the age of 95.

Basu, who was the longest serving chief minister in Indian political history, led the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM) to power in West Bengal in 1977 and ruled the state for an unbroken 23 years.

After an inconclusive general election in 1996, he was within a hair’s breadth of becoming prime minister at the head of a centre-left coalition — a prospect that prompted the headline “Red Star Over Delhi” in one national newspaper.

But the CPM’s central committee decided not to participate in the government — a move that Basu later described as a “historic blunder”.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh paid tribute to Basu’s “legendary skills in building consensus” and praised “his style of democratic and decentralised governance”.

He died of multiple organ failure in a hospital in Kolkata, capital of West Bengal state.

The son of a well-off Bengali family, Basu was born in 1914 in Kolkata, which was then Calcutta and the capital of British India.

While training to be a lawyer in England in the 1930s, at the time of the Spanish Civil War and the rise of fascism, he was drawn to the communist movement, which he formally joined following his return to India in 1940.

After a period of trade union activity, Basu launched his political career when he was elected to the Bengal legislative assembly.

When the Communist Party of India split in 1964, Basu became one of the first politburo members of the newly formed CPM and several years later he became deputy chief minister of West Bengal.

His more than two-decade reign as chief minister began on June 21, 1977 and will be remembered for rural reforms which included the creation of village councils, and the redistribution of land to peasant farmers.

But critics blame him for allowing West Bengal’s economy to stagnate, pointing to his failure to rein in militant trade unions, rejuvenate industry or encourage foreign investment.

An unabashed critic of the United States, Basu mischievously changed the address of the US consulate in Kolkata from Harrington Street to Ho Chi Minh Street.

Ill health forced him to step down as chief minister in 2000.
A widower, Basu is survived by his son, Chandan, who is an industrialist.

Source: AFP

Jyoti Basu’s successes and failures

When he first became a legislator in the West Bengal assembly in the late 1940s, there were only two of them in the house. His death six decades later has taken place at a time when the ideology itself is dying out not only in India, but worldwide.

His admirers – and they are a legion – are bound to derive no little satisfaction, therefore, from the fact that he was associated almost solely with the ascent of the party and that he was spared the sorrow of seeing its decline and fall.

Although the intervening period saw the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) come to power for an unprecedented three decades in his home state of West Bengal, its turbulence career typified the rocky course which both the organization and Basu himself would follow.

Before the attainment of power, however, the Left suffered one of its most grievous blows from which it can still be said to be suffering. This was the break-up of the undivided Communist party in 1964 based mainly on the Sino-Soviet split, but linked more directly to the Chinese invasion of 1962 that divided it into pro-Chinese and pro-Soviet sections.

In keeping with his reputation as a hard-headed pragmatist, Basu was known for a time as a centrist before he threw in his lot with the newly formed CPI-M. But it would not be long before the CPI-M itself would split, with the pro-Chinese Naxalites (Maoists) breaking away in 1969 to form their own outfit.

Arguably, it is these divisions which irreparably weakened the Communist movement in India although their baneful effects were not immediately apparent. Instead, the CPI-M and other Left parties were seen to be riding high with the decline in the gradual Congress’ position in West Bengal and elsewhere in the country.

Not surprisingly, it was the Left, and particularly the CPI-M, which gained the most in West Bengal and Kerala from this decline, with Basu entering the portals of a “bourgeois” government – then an unthinkable event for most Communists – first as deputy chief minister of the United Front in West Bengal in 1967 and 1969 and then as chief minister in 1977 for a 23-year stint.

Unfortunately, this success turned out to be only a formal one since most of the reasons for the Left’s current failures can be traced to those two decades when Basu was at the helm. Although the Left Front led by the CPI-M did consolidate its hold on power, the resultant hubris made it follow a path which gradually widened the distance between it and the average people, which has now become starkly evident.

It was Basu’s failure to realize that doctrinaire Marxism had become a millstone round the party’s neck, leading to West Bengal’s industrial decline because of the flight of capital, which has eroded the hold of the Communists on the state.

When his successor as chief minster, Buddhadev Bhattacharjee, finally realized that pro-market policies were the only way to revive the state’s economy, it was too late because, by then, parties like the Trinamool Congress, which emulated the Left’s earlier irresponsible policies, had come to the fore.

It was not without reason, therefore, that sections within the CPI-M began to describe the later stages of Basu’s tenure as a period of stagnation, comparable to the time when Brezhnev was at the helm in the Soviet Union.

Basu’s career can be said to have marked, therefore, more by failure than success. If the rise of the Left in the 1960s and ’70s was the result of a cyclical change in Indian politics, its decline, which has reduced it to a position of insignificance in parliament and when it faces major electoral setbacks in West Bengal, is the result of Basu’s failure to reinvent the CPI-M – as Bhattacharjee tried to do a la Deng Xiaoping.

It can be argued that, temperamentally, Basu was unsuited for such a momentous task of transformation. A patrician, he was always generally aloof from the heat and dust of party and electoral politics. In the earlier periods, he left the organizational and doctrinal matters to people like Promode Dasgupta and Harekrishna Konar and, after their deaths, he became something of a lonely figure because there was no one of his stature in the CPI-M and the Left Front.

That he was aware of the need for a turnaround was evident from his wooing of investments, even foreign ones, in the ’80s and ’90s. But it was a half-hearted affair since the private sector and foreign capital were still bugbears for orthodox Communists.
It must have been with a sense of relief, therefore, that he passed the baton to Bhattacharjee.

Before that, he had faced another, personal blow when his party refused to accept the entreaties of H.D. Deve Gowda and others in the non-Congress government of 1996 to let him be the prime minister.

Basu was later to describe this refusal, orchestrated by Prakash Karat among others, as a “historic blunder” because he felt it denied an opportunity to the Left to play a role on the national stage which, he believed, was its due.

Now that he has passed from the scene, the Communists will probably never be able to play such a role if only because they have no one who can be likened, as Basu undoubtedly will be, to a legend.

Source: Times of India



Latest Comments
  1. Sarah Khan
  2. Sarah Khan
  3. Sarah Khan
  4. Abdul Nishapuri