The work of the spirited intellectuals
was only to applaud and cheer –
India was so immoral then.
– Kailash Vajpeyi in “A Ritual of Naming”
He was a good atheist, the revolutionary Bhadralok of Bengal. He wanted his corneas to outlive him, and wished that his body be used for scientific purposes. And, by and large, the last wishes of Jyoti Basu (1914-2010) were honoured. However, the learned ideologue forgot to expressly forbid a state funeral. So, his last rites were marked by a queer sight of military bands playing the national anthem, Communist Party of India (Marxist) cadres singing the “Internationale”, and some devout Hindu priests blowing inverted conch shells to ensure a safe passage of the departed soul towards eternity. Strange are the ways people deal with the dead – even someone as prominent as the world’s first elected head of a communist government.
But when did Basu actually die? Official declarations mention that he breathed his last on 17 January 2010 at 11:47 in the morning at the AMRI Hospital in Calcutta, where he has been awaiting death for more than two weeks. In a front-page obituary in the Times of India, M J Akbar reminisced that Basu already considered himself dead a few months ago. In fact, his long march out of life probably began the day he handed over the reins of government a decade ago to Buddhadeb Bhattacharya on health grounds.
Basu must have writhed in pain as his successor began, in slow motion, to lose his grip over the state. The lowest point in the life of the communist leader must have been the controversy over land deals in Singur and Nandigram. Things that Bhattacharya did in the name of industrialisation of the state alienated the alliance that Basu has assiduously built between the metropolitan intelligentsia, the urban dispossessed and the rural poor. From there on, it has been a downhill journey for the CPI (M). The poor have gone to the Naxalites, the intelligentsia to Congress, and the lumpen proletariat have found a new saviour in Mamata Banerjee – the arch-populist with neither a social programme nor any ideology of political philosophy.
The rest of India – and Southasia – was ready with perfunctory obituaries. These dismissed Basu as a labour leader, the country’s longest-serving chief minister, a gentleman politician, a gentleman communist. These and similar epithets were perhaps true depictions, but ultimately they ended up demeaning Basu’s lifelong politics, rather than highlighting his contributions or achievements. Ironically, it was his critics that got Basu’s politics correct, assessing that the titan of leftwing politics had priorities different those of from his political contemporaries.
For the Millennials of the metro pages in New Delhi and the Generation Y coordinators of business presses in Bombay, Basu was an anachronism. His passing signified the end of an era when governments mattered and businesses had to pay heed to the aspirations of the people. Such a tone, even though somewhat dismissive, captured the essence of Basu’s politics better than the effusive praise heaped upon the unassuming man of the masses.
In the din of free-market fundamentalism and the ‘glory’ of getting rich, Basu has been blamed for the economic woes and industrial ills of West Bengal. Yet few care to remember that when he took over the reins from Siddhartha Shankar Ray in June 1977, it was already a tottering state. That it holds together today, and is a place where an unaccompanied woman can walk freely without fear of being molested in the streets, is a tribute to Basu, who prevented West Bengal from total collapse.
Pushpa Kamal Dahal, the first ever elected Maoist prime minister in the world, threw in the towel last May, when his continuation in high office in Nepal warranted a bit of ‘revisionism’. In his case, this was the necessity of listening to voices of dissidence in the then-coalition government, and the willingness to withdraw certain administrative decisions. The Maoist Supremo of Nepal had repeatedly proclaimed earlier that he hated revisionism, seriously hated revisionism.
Dahal is not alone in believing that the leftist pantheon of Marx, Angels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao hold a collective monopoly over the ‘truth’, and that any deviation from their teaching is tantamount to sacrilege. The CPI (M) was not much different when Basu ascended to one of the bourgeois thrones at the Writers’ Building in Calcutta as deputy chief minister in the United Front government. His party was dominated by Brahmin purists of Marxism, who feared the pollution of reforms and wanted to keep the party as closely aligned to the venerated principles of dictatorship of the proletariat as possible. Instead, Basu steered his colleagues gently towards the stream of pluralism and parliamentary democracy.
Now that West Bengal has stabilised, it is easy to exclaim that Basu’s policies scared away businesses and industry from West Bengal. But fears were different in the mid-1970s when Basu began his long reign. His friend, opponent and predecessor had been Indira Gandhi’s trusted point-man in her war against the Naxalites. The messy and violent crackdown against India’s defenceless Maoists had brutalised the state administration and its police – people had begun to perceive the state as their main enemy. West Bengal’s finances were in shambles, having absorbed the shock of a second refugee influx due to the War of Independence in Bangladesh, just 24 years after Partition. The Centre’s ‘freight equalisation’ scheme had also pushed industries out to the west of peninsular India; when the transportation costs of raw materials was borne by the state, it made much more sense to take manufacturing units as close to the market as possible. Thus, when Basu took over as chief minister, West Bengal was essentially a failed state.
Running such a state in the traditional Marxist way would have been futile, if not counterproductive. So, Basu decided to first build it from the grassroots. The transformation of West Bengal into a modern entity began with the transfer of ownership of agricultural land to the tillers, the creation of village councils, and the activation of forums of worker solidarity through trade unions and neighbourhood societies. This was an open challenge to the mercantilists of Calcutta. They began to withhold investment, and their collaborators in the media started a campaign to defame the communist government. For his part, though, Basu thought this a lesser evil. Creating a cohesive society capable of absorbing the stress of religious differences, caste antagonism and regional biases was at the top of his agenda. That partly explains why Calcutta never had anyone like Bal Thackeray openly inciting violence against non-Hindus or the outsiders. The CPI (M) membership card was a great equaliser.
Many of Basu’s moves were unpopular. In his attempt to cement class solidarity, he often ignored the minor misdemeanours of labour unions. His decision to change the name of the street where the US consulate was located, from Harrington Street to Ho Chi Minh Sarani, won him many admirers, but it further distanced him from a powerful section of the Calcutta literati. His inability to convince the establishment of his true intentions – creating a more cohesive West Bengal in a united India – was perhaps his greatest failure. He probably thought that his actions would speak for themselves, and did not even try to explain his motives to powerful men who mattered in distant New Delhi. Eventually, anti-Marxist forces of all hues banded together with Calcutta moneybags to undermine his rule. His enemies inside the party began to fear him so much that, during the mid-1990s they denied him the chance to lead a coalition government in New Delhi – a decision he was to later term a “historic blunder”.
Mythmakers love dazzling successes and spectacular failures, heroes and villains and tales of bravery or chicanery. History is thus never a good judge of personalities that initiate change and see it though with patience and persistence. But reformers live in people’s memories. Long after people have forgotten Rajiv Gandhi’s characterisation of Calcutta as a cesspool, they still talk about the person who prevented the pond from drying up altogether. The cesspool exists, which means it can be cleaned.
There must be some truth in what Indian statesman Gopalakrishna Gokhale once said, half in jest: “What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow!” If Southasia has a future, it will have to find a way for the democratic Marxism of Jyoti Basu to replace the market democracy of Narendra Modi or the military democracies of Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Only that – certainly not all of the region’s defence forces – can save our societies from the wrath of the unwashed masses, which occasionally finds expression through violent eruptions of Naxalism or religious extremism.
~ C K Lal is a columnist for this magazine and for the Nepali Times.