The last legacy that Basu leaves is a spacer his party at the Centre. A Left liberal heading the Union government should give the Indian polity a new direction.
Jyoti Basu ended his tenure as the longest serving chief minister ever in India in October this year. It had been almost exactly a year since he had first made public his desire to demit office on the ground that his health was not up to the task of governing a fractious state with numerous political, economic and social problems. And, to be fair to him, for some time Basu had been operating on less than all cylinders, spending lesser and lesser time in the state’s administrative headquarters at Writers’ Buildings, with Buddhadev Bhattacharya, his deputy, shouldering more and more of the quotidian administrative load. The public and the media were, nevertheless, taken aback by the suddenness of this decision to retire. Intense speculation about the party’s motives behind letting the ‘patriarch’ go was fuelled primarily because of the timing of the decision.
In the first place, the elections to the State Assembly are scheduled for early next year. And it was more than conceivable that Basu could have kept going with an even more attenuated workload for another six months or so. His health did not seem to have registered any dramatic decline. Secondly, the party announced its decision to let Basu step down just a few days after its special conference, held in Trivandrum had endorsed his line that in future the party could participate in a coalition government at the Centre, should the opportunity present itself. This was a decisive victory for Basu’s views over the policy espoused by the ‘hardline’, and hitherto majority, group within the party.
Why was it that the party allowed Basu to go, in a sense, finally proclaiming that he was no more the indispensable prop of the show in West Bengal, at the moment of his triumph? Basu could have played a crucial role in the elections that the party will soon have to fight in West Bengal. The Left Front government which has ruled that state since early 1977 does not have the aura of invincibility that it had even a couple of years ago. The Trinamool Congress, a splinter of the Congress, has mounted an increasingly credible challenge to the Left Front. Its leader, Mamata Bannerjee, now a senior cabinet minister at the centre, has managed to become the centripetal pole of the anti-Left forces— and votes—in the state.
Basu’s presence at the helm of both the government and the election campaign may have proved decisive in the election. His credibility as a political manager and an administrator is critical for the Left Front’s appeal. Bhattacharya, Basu’s annointed successor, a somewhat dour ideologue, on the other hand, lacks charisma. To the extent that his administrative acumen has been tested, it has been found to be wanting. As a leader of men, he is not the ideal choice.
The CPI(M) put out two contradictory explanations for allowing Basu to relinquish his duties. On the one hand, they spoke about his poor health. On the other, they said that in the rapidly changing national context, his skills were to be utilized to help forge another ‘third front’ to provide an alternative to both the BJP and the Congress. If Basu was ailing to the extent that he could not hold out as chief minister, how will he be able to play an active role in forging a ‘third front’?
More likely, the CPI(M) is now engaged in evolving a new strategic balance. Central to this is the attempt to achieve, at the national level, a greater policy flexibility of the pragmatic kind advocated by Basu. On one occasion at least, such pragmatism had disastrous consequences. It will be recalled that the adoption of the ‘Bengal’ line advocated by Basu, in preference to the ‘Kerala’ line espoused by EMS Namboodiripad, led to the CPI(M) supporting VP Singh’s National Front government in 1989. This government also drew on the support of the BJP. That ‘pragmatic’ political formation gave the BJP mainstream political legitimacy and the toe-hold it needed for its national ascent. The CPI(M) is now bemoaning the consequences of that decision.
At the same time, by allowing Basu to go, the party is also trying to signal that it is not about to loosen its grip. Basu had for a long time been pushing for a greater flexibility in economic programmes, labour policy and the functioning of the party. He had been shielding dissenters like Subhas Chakraborty and Saifuddin Chowdhury, who had started a campaign over a year ago to uphold the cause of greater inner-party democracy in an attempt to loosen the control of the ‘hardline’ faction over the party machinery. Chowdhury was expelled, and the party has thus indicated that dissent will not be tolerated, especially in its eastern bastion.
It must be said that there is something to be said for this strategy of the CPI(M). But it can work only if some ground rules operate. First, flexibility at the Centre cannot be used as a pretext for suicidal and unbridled opportunism of the 1989 variety. And this is a very real danger, given that the general secretary of the party, HarkishanSingh Surjeet, has earned a well-deserved reputation for being a power broker and a wheeler-dealer to whom no principle has sanctity. The policy of flexibility has to be used responsibly to build political formations that are viable. At the same time, in West Bengal, more stringent controls over the party machinery, have to be blended with development initiatives that will take the state out of the backwardness that has overtaken it during the Left Front’s undistinguished tenure. Controls must also be used to ensure that at the lower levels, state resources are not swallowed up by a party machinery that has become more and more corrupt and all-pervasive. The Left Front has to shed some of its more meaningless and formulaic dogma and implement programmes that will promote industrial development, revive the once exemplary but now languishing land reform programme in new directions and reconstruct the crumbling social infrastructure, especially in health care, education and welfare provisions.
The CPI(M) has consistently refused to realise that in reality it is a bowdlerised version of a social democratic party. Bowdlerised because it operates fundamentally like the ‘bourgeois’ party that it is, while clinging to a constant state of denial. Merely repeating calls for ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ convinces no one anymore. The CPI(M) would do the nation a great service if it recognised the need for a social democratic party and try to convert itself into one. By so doing, it could defend the middle ground and the substance of the liberal Nehruvian vision that is fast slipping in India today. The CPI(M) could try and push welfare and secularism more centrally into the national agenda, at a time when the BJP has attempted to push the polity considerably to the right of centre. The CPI(M) could play a much more effective role in redefining the liberal vision and help marginalise the extreme Right.
And what does Basu have to do with all of this? He did represent the most encouraging facets of this tendency, but never managed, despite having been given a great opportunity. Basu had the bourgeois temperament and training that made him inherently flexible and acceptable to a broad spectrum. If he had combined this asset with flexible and pragmatic policies to turn West Bengal into something of a viable welfare model, he could have transformed both his party and national politics. Unfortunately, we now have to speak of Basu in the past tense.