Walk the Talk with Jyoti Basu

Shekhar Gupta: My guest today is the last of the long marchers in our politics, in fact, perhaps the last of the great Communists or comrades anywhere in the world. But even at the age of 90, his journey is far from over. In fact, he perhaps thinks that his journey has come to a very interesting turning point right now in these elections. Welcome to Walk The Talk, Mr Jyoti Basu. Very nice of you to agree to speak with us. I know you are very busy campaigning in the elections.

Jyoti Basu: Yes, unfortunately even at this age and with my health...I have to. I never thought that this elections I would face because I thought it would happen five or six months later...And two rounds of elections have been there. And from the reports which I gather from newspapers and from my friends, I feel that BJP will go down. Their numbers will go down. Congress will come up. .

But nobody can get a majority it seems. Because they are dependent, now the coalition partners are there with the Congress, with the BJP. It seems eight or nine parties have deserted the BJP. Who they are, I do not know. How many MPs they have, I do not know. But in any case, looks like a hung Parliament may come off. And then, parties have to sit together, non-communal parties on the one side, communal parties on the other side and then decide on the minimum programme, on which we lay a lot of stress, it has to be there. (It) cannot be any party’s programme but minimum common programme as we have in West Bengal, and then we have to choose the prime minister also. .

Shekhar Gupta: We’ll come to the question of your party not agreeing but tell me, nobody knows Indian politics better than you. You’ve been in public life for 64 years now? .

Jyoti Basu: 64 years. .

Shekhar Gupta: So today, forget exit polls, forget opinion polls, do you see a Congress-led coalition in power, three weeks from now? .

Jyoti Basu: That is what we are hoping for, we are working for. But it doesn’t depend on us only, but the smaller parties, but other smaller parties, but mainly on the Congress. But one good thing has happened. We’ve been telling the Congress that you can’t have a single party majority, ever. At least in the near future, we don’t see any possibility. So you must think about a coalition, which they refused last time when the BJP lost by one vote. And so nothing happened. And now it seems they’ve changed. In their Shimla meeting they said that coalition is the way out. .

Shekhar Gupta: So now Indian politics is finding a direction. This is a BJP-led coalition versus a Cong-led coalition? .

Jyoti Basu: That’s right, correct. .

Shekhar Gupta: And that will be the direction for some time now? .

Jyoti Basu: Some time now. That’s right. .

Shekhar Gupta: If these projections are right, do you think the BJP made a mistake by announcing an early poll. .

Jyoti Basu: I think so. You see that didn’t work. I don’t see any effect of that anywhere. So now in their programme, I find that the Ram temple issue has been raised. So whoever their partners are at the moment, eight or nine have left them. I do not know all of them. So they have also to think if they are non-communal, if they are secular. But BJP very soon found out after spending crores of government money on ads... .

Shekhar Gupta: India Shining...

Jyoti Basu: Feel good, India Shining and all the rest of it, that didn’t work. So they brought into the forefront the RSS, VHP, Bajrang Dal and all their programmes. Other, Hindutva or what they call Hindutva. .

Shekhar Gupta: Hindutva, I think, and also Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origin, which is now emerging... .

Jyoti Basu: That also I will come (to)...but that I don’t think is having much effect. I don’t know in the northern part of India but here, it doesn’t have any effect. But there are some people even in the Congress who talk about this foreign origin. .

Shekhar Gupta: Who feel uneasy?

Jyoti Basu: But we can’t stop her. Because if she wants to become the prime minister, (she is) the largest party leader. Because under the Constitution, she is an Indian citizen. She has all the rights which Indian citizens have. .

Shekhar Gupta: But the NDA has said they will bring in a law to bar people of foreign origin from holding high offices. .

Jyoti Basu: Yes, yes, if they come to government, they have made it clear they will bring such a law. It exists in some countries but we shall oppose it. We don’t like it at all. .

Shekhar Gupta: For what reasons?

Jyoti Basu: Well, she has married an Indian, she’s got Indian citizenship. A person like that, how can you prevent them from participating in politics? Or her children? .

Shekhar Gupta: But tomorrow, there can be a situation that the NDA falls short and there is a prospect of a non-NDA, or what you call a secular, alliance coming to power. Suppose two parties in that alliance say we will support the alliance but no Sonia. They bring in the foreigner issue. .

Jyoti Basu: I told you that it is only after the results are out, elections are over, that that will be decided by the parties who want to get together to form a secular government to decide on the prime minister as well as the common minimum programme. .

Shekhar Gupta: But if the Congress then chooses, Congress is the government and partner, they choose Sonia Gandhi ? .

Jyoti Basu: I don’t think we should have any objection. I, at least, will not have any. .

Shekhar Gupta: The Left will not have an objection? .

Jyoti Basu: She’s working for the Congress, her party. .

Shekhar Gupta: But you had objections in the past. .

Jyoti Basu: I never had any objection. When I was asked when she first joined politics, I said I had known her from earlier times when Rajiv was there. I had dinner, lunch and all that with them and she was a housewife. But housewives also (laughs) have the right to come into politics. I am very happy about it. .

Shekhar Gupta: So you see her as a housewife... .

Jyoti Basu: She has been working very hard, it seems. Her only problem was Hindi. So I asked her. She said no, my children of course speak Hindi very well, but I have also picked up. .

Shekhar Gupta: When did you ask her about her Hindi? .

Jyoti Basu: I asked her... .

Shekhar Gupta: No, when? .

Jyoti Basu: That was about three, three or four months back. When I was ill, I went to hospital for four-and-a-half days. I went for my Central Committee meeting. I came back home, then she came and saw me. .

Shekhar Gupta: And, you questioned her on her Hindi? .

Jyoti Basu: Then, I said, of course we spoke in English, but (laughs) I said that (her picking up Hindi) is very good because that is what you need, particularly in northern India where you are standing for the elections. .

Shekhar Gupta: What other advice did you give her? That’s fascinating...

Jyoti Basu: No, we told her from the party that you must talk about a coalition. In India today, unfortunately after 56 years of Independence, we don’t have the two-party system. Two-party system will not work. So one has to have allies and you must seek allies even before the election. We shall support you, your candidates wherever we are not there. Kerala, Tripura... .

Shekhar Gupta: What other personal advice did you give her besides saying learn Hindi and talk about coalitions? .

Jyoti Basu: We told her that you must mix with the people that you know very well. You’ve been to meetings during Rajiv’s time also. You didn’t speak there but you went with him, you saw the reaction of the crowd. .

Shekhar Gupta: So you think, after all this education, Sonia Gandhi has changed for the better? Is she a good learner? .

Jyoti Basu: I think so. She has (learnt). I wish her certainly good luck. Because again, I say it is the biggest non-communal party in the Opposition. And they’ve committed mistakes. I hope they’ve understood some of that. I don’t know. But from their programme, I’m not very satisfied. So, if they can, Congress party can form a government along with allies... .

Shekhar Gupta: But do you see some atonement, some prayashchit or some introspection, in the Congress party for what mistakes you think they’ve made? .

Jyoti Basu: In the economic sphere, they made a lot of mistakes. And it is Dr Manmohan Singh who was the Finance Minister. He started this, blindly accepting World Bank policies and IMF policies...We didn’t like that. And, of course, I asked him once. He said but in my time not a single public sector undertaking was sold. Now they’ve modified it a bit. I see in the programme, their programme. But it will be a common minimum programme (for a coalition), it cannot be their programme.

Shekhar Gupta: But that is the other issue. The issue of economic reforms. Now just the exit polls have seen the markets dropping and stock markets falling. There is a lot of anxiety about economic reform and the direction of India’s economy. Would you say that this is an undue concern? .

Jyoti Basu: No, no, this is very much...people are concerned with the economy. And learning from the past mistakes, the mistakes of the BJP government and all that, we should work out a programme where we can stand on our own feet but also get technology, finance and other things from outside, but we must be selective. Not blindly accept whatever these people are saying. .

It is they who are responsible—the World Bank and IMF—for the downfall of the South-East Asian economy, which is gathering strength now. But that went down. Indonesia went down. And there’s a book written by the chief economic advisor to the World Bank... .

Shekhar Gupta: (Joseph) Stiglitz? .

Jyoti Basu: Stiglitz. I read that, it’s wonderful...from his experience... .

Shekhar Gupta: Globalisation and its Discontents... .

Jyoti Basu: Yes. He says it’s not working, particularly... .

Shekhar Gupta: But even he’s not anti-reform, anti-globalisation or anti-reform. .

Jyoti Basu: No, no, he’s for globalisation. That is there but the alternative he’s not said. He’s for globalisation, but he says mistakes have been committed so he resigned, and he’s written that book. We should also read that book, understand it. And then he says that is why Indonesia went down, South-East Asia went down, Latin America, some went down... .

Shekhar Gupta: But India did not go down... .

Jyoti Basu: India, that way, did not go down but did not advance...

Shekhar Gupta: As much as it could have... .

Jyoti Basu: Our unemployment situation is very, very serious. Because, particularly the educated unemployed we find, because the programme which was there for the unemployed youth, all that is not there. Nothing has been done by the BJP government. The BJP-led government always talked about giving one crore jobs a year... .

Shekhar Gupta: But it hasn’t happened... .

Jyoti Basu: It hasn’t happened. .

Shekhar Gupta: What you are saying is that reform or globalisation or free markets may by themselves not be bad but you have to be sensible in the way you implement those policies... .

Jyoti Basu: Absolutely. Absolutely. .

Shekhar Gupta: And to that extent, are you happy with the way your successor is doing? .

Jyoti Basu: He has also invited foreigners here. When I was the chief minister, I went abroad four or five times to address industrialists there and talk about our economic situation. And some result was there...Philips, the Siemens and some others came. Then petrochemical... .

Shekhar Gupta: So, you don’t see MNCs by themselves as a bad thing? .

Jyoti Basu: No, this is capitalist globalisation, you see. It helps only a few. I find he writes, Stiglitz, that even in America, the poorer sections, the numbers of poor people have grown. .

Shekhar Gupta: But when your government here or your successor’s invites MNCs, or gets Japanese investment, Mitsubishi...or gets the DFID money to close down loss-making companies, is that a good thing or a bad thing? .

Jyoti Basu: No, no, Mitsubishi was already there. During my time, they came. When Haldia Petrochemical (came up), I had to wait 13 years to get permission from the Central Government. Rajiv was there, he went along with me and then laid the foundation stone. So this is just one example. In Salt Lake, where you are questioning me, Bidhan Nagar we call it, there is the electronic sector where 17,000 boys and girls are working everyday. And Indira Gandhi, having promised to help me, did not help me. We helped ourselves. .

Shekhar Gupta: But the kind of reform that your successor is now doing, you see that as good reform? .

Jyoti Basu: Of course. That is within our policy. In 1994, I placed on the floor of the Assembly our industrial policy as asked by the... .

Shekhar Gupta: Would you say that the argument in Indian politics today is not whether there should be reform or not but what kind or direction of reform should take place? .

Jyoti Basu: Reform has to be there, there is no doubt about that. But the point is you must not forget 70 per cent of the people in the villages. .

Shekhar Gupta: So, Mr Basu, if a new coalition government is put together under the leadership of the Congress, as you think is inevitable now, if that change happens, you would say there is no threat to economic reform? .

Jyoti Basu: There has to be reform. But what I said was, earlier also, that we must not blindly follow the World Bank prescription and the IMF prescription. We should think on our own and then we should try to stand on our own feet. Now they’ve got a minister who is selling industries which during Indira’s time or Jawaharlal’s time were built up. That is why I said even the sick industries which are with the government, they should try to revive some of them. If they can’t, very well, close them, but they’re doing nothing of the kind. All sending it to BIFR, and so many are closing in various states. .

Shekhar Gupta: Your own CM in the state is selling a lot of public sector industries. In fact, he is selling a lot of public sector industries with the DFID money. .

Jyoti Basu: Yes, that’s right. With British aid. They have earlier also helped us in education. .

Shekhar Gupta: So you approve of that? .

Jyoti Basu: I have no objection. No conditionality should be there. And they come every year to see what is happening, on the ground. .

Shekhar Gupta: So you don’t mind investment...

Jyoti Basu: If there are mutual interests, I don’t mind. .

Shekhar Gupta: ...or deregulation? .

Jyoti Basu: No, but this policy which the Congress government had about industries, that policy, of course, they had to give up because of outside pressure and our pressure also. Our industrialists, when they used to go to Delhi, they used to be told if you are investing in Bengal, then there is no hope. If you go anywhere else, we sign. Now that system is no longer there. That has helped us. .

Shekhar Gupta: But when you start building this coalition, if it comes to that, then there are partners, Mulayam Singh Yadav for example, who are very opposed to the idea of somebody from foreign origin becoming PM. You think that problem is now solvable? .

Jyoti Basu: I think it will be solved. It will be solved. If they are the biggest party, the strongest party with a lot of MPs, then how can one object? If they elect Sonia as their president or leader of the party in Parliament? But anyway, we have to discuss. .

Shekhar Gupta: And if they are the biggest party you cannot also tell them what to do and what not to do. .

Jyoti Basu: What, how can they dictate to them? Only thing is we want a common minimum programme, I say again and again. It is very, very important for us, which we had during the 12-party coalition government which we supported from outside... .

Shekhar Gupta: But that did not happen when the UF government was there. Too many conditions were put, the Congress will not come in, the Cong will come in, there will not be a steering committee... .

Jyoti Basu: No, Congress itself agreed that it will support from outside. So we accepted it. Only in my party, there was division (laughs). Anyway, we worked for that coalition. .

Shekhar Gupta: In fact, that’s the question that I know you expect to be asked everytime somebody speaks with you. The division in your party and what you described as the ‘historic blunder’. .

Jyoti Basu: Yes, I still think it was a historic blunder. Why historic? Because such an opportunity does not come. History does not give such opportunity. Knowing who I am—a Marxist, a Communist, in the party here, for so many years I’ve been in politics, they invited me because they had no other prime minister in view. So we thought that even if we last for one year in that coalition with myself as the prime minister and our party joining it, then people would understand backward sections of the people. In many places, they don’t even know us. What we are all about.

Shekhar Gupta: Why do you say the opportunity is lost? It could happen again in this election?

Jyoti Basu: It could but at that time, I said I don’t see any possibility. Even today, you see, if in the coalition the Congress wins, for instance, the largest non-communal party, they have to agree to a minimum programme. Otherwise...

Shekhar Gupta: And then, for a coalition to last, it will have to have the Congress in it and in front...

Jyoti Basu: That’s right. And they have no experience of running a coalition and that is our difficulty. But I am sure that they will learn. People will teach them.

Shekhar Gupta: Tell me, one last word. The other senior politician in our system besides you is Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee. You’ve known him for a long time. What is your view on him?

Jyoti Basu: I know all of them. Advani, I know. V P Singh sent me to him before the break-up of the government (saying) please prevent him from this rath yatra. I went to his house, I sat there, argued with him. He would not agree. And again, he’s started this rath yatra. And thousands were killed at that time.

Shekhar Gupta: But you’ve said uncomplimentary things about him. I think you’ve called the BJP barbarians and you said you will never speak with Mr Advani again.

Jyoti Basu: Yes, yes. But he asked me. After a meeting here four years back, he called me to Raj Bhawan (and said) that ‘I told the crowd that I’ll ask you why you call us barbarians and uncivilised’. I said I am naming nobody but three of your ministers were there when Babri Masjid was being brought down. And I’m talking about what you’ve done. That time, the Christian killings had not started. Later on, that happened.

Shekhar Gupta: Would you still call them barbarians?

Jyoti Basu: What they’re doing is certainly barbarian. What happened where Gandhiji was born, what happened there, is it imaginable? After 56 years of Independence?

Shekhar Gupta: But would you still say you will never speak to Mr Advani again?

Jyoti Basu: But Gujarat, you know. Prime Minister went, I think, after three days. He said how can I show my face. But Modi is a ‘good person’. This is a mask. I don’t like it.

Shekhar Gupta: But would you still say you will never speak with Mr Advani again?

Jyoti Basu: Who knows? Politicians must speak. Enemies or friends, that is a different matter, you see. I didn’t like his rath yatra the second time.

Shekhar Gupta: And you call Mr Vajpayee a mask in the context of Gujarat. But overall, what’s your view on him, as a person, politician, statesman?

Jyoti Basu: As a person, he’s quite a gentleman. An educated person, all that I knew for a long time. And when he was, I think, foreign minister, that time also he behaved. But he himself says he’s RSS. He depends on the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Bajrang Dal. But that mask has now fallen, fortunately, before the elections. I am happy about that.

Shekhar Gupta: Well, Mr Basu, I know you are beaming. I think you are looking at very interesting politics in the weeks to come. Thank you very much for finding time for us. And I know no opportunity is ever lost forever. I know you are around. And you never know what may happen.

Jyoti Basu: Well, we are optimistic (laughs).

published in INDIAN EXPRESS on Monday, May 03, 2004.