Nikhil Chakraborty, Senior Political Columnist

It is difficult, if not extremely awkward, to write ahout a contemporary personally known for many years. Because, that often leads to highly subjective appreciation on the part of the writer as also equally subjective reaction on the part of the subject as well. It is with this handicap in mind that I am responding to the insistent importunities of the editor of this volume to write on Jyoti Basu.

Jyoti Basu I have known for nearly six decades. I would have perhaps known him earlier had we been in the same year at Calcutta's Presidency College. He was junior to me by a year and so there was little scope of our path crossing each other in College days. A couple of years later we met in England - sometime in 1937 ­and that acquaintance has persisted though I have drifted apart from the path we all had taken at one time.

In the early years during the student days, quite a number of us were drawn towards Marxism. Since the Communist party under the British Raj was banned, most of our relationship was sub rosa. In the wide open space of youth and student activity, we were "all proud of Jyoti as the very active president of the London Majlis. He was a forceful speaker though no sparkling orator like Mohan Kumaramangalam from Madras and Peter Kenneman from Colombo. In those days, any notable leader from our national movement coming to England would be addressing the London Majlis. The role of honour included all shades of opinion from Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose to Yusuf Meherali and Vijayalaxmi Pandit, from Bhulahhai Desai to Purnima Banerji. We could depend upon Jyoti to conduct the proceedings of such gatherings with poisa and sang-froid.

Apart from the London majlis, there was the India League under Krishna Menon, bustling with activity with nationalist-minded students spending their part time for some type of work or the other in connection with the campaign for Indian independence which was the main platform of the organisation. Here we used to gather for whatever work available or assigned. In this regard those of us coming from outside London had only minor roles to play, the main bulk or work used to fall on friends in London, and among them Jyoti was very active. Particularly, in the areas where the Indian workers, seamen in most cases, Jyoti Basu had the first direct of impact of trade union work.

There was another rendezvous where we could be meeting was a small bookshop called Bibliophile, in one of side streets near the British Museum. Run by a nationalist Indian who had already had his baptism in Bengal's revolutionary movement, Dr. Sarabhar Sinha was a very familiar landmark for all Indian students with serious interest in politics. Here I met Dr Shelvankar and J. K. (Bhanu) Banerji, Promode Sen, P. N. Haksar and Mulk Raj Anand, Mohan Dharia and Feroze Gandhi, Arun Bose and Rajni Patel, Bhupesh Gupta and Renu Roy, Tarapada Basu and Iqbal Singh. Here Jyoti used to come as we all did for a chat and a cup of tea. This bookshop was not an intellectuals' retreat but the Centre for those who looked upon the world of books mainly for acquaintance with the world currents and their impact on our freedom struggle.

Returning home in the early months of the war, Jyoti was immediately involved in the open activity of the underground party, which took him to students' meetings all over Bengal as also trade union activity mainly of the railway workers. The forties saw him involved in numerous initiatives, one of which was the Friends of the Soviet Union in which Hiren Mukherji and Snehangsu Acharyya were active. In the campaign for relief in the wake of the Bengal famine 1943-44, Jybti was active, though by now his main field of activity was in trade unions. Among our contemporaries, Indrajit Gupta and Jyoti Basu took to trade union activity. At the same time, he was active in direct political work. After Bankim Mukherji, Muzaffar Ahmed and Somnath Lahiri came this new generation of political leaders in' the person of Bhupesh Gupta and Jyoti Basu. One of his earliest achievements in this field was his victory in the Assembly elections, in which he defeated the well-known Congress leader, Humayun Kabir.

From· that entry point in Assembly politics in 1946 started the unbroken career of Jyoti Basu as a parliamentarian. By sheer span of 49 years, this is the longest record for any political leader in our country, and it should but a matter of pride for him that this parliamentary career should be crowned with a record-breaking Chief Ministership of eighteen long years.

To me, Jyoti Basu's first five years as a fearless leader in the Bengal Assembly, are the finest years of his political career. Often alone, he fought single-handed in raising the voice of the millions upon millions of working people, unrepresented in the Assembly chamber. The fight against police repression and for a fair deal for the under­dog, Jyoti Basu articulated those days and, more often, it came as a powerful indictment of the establishment. Those were days of proud conviction which resonated with the urges of the silent unlettered millions, the dispossessed in our exploitative society.

Since those days, our country has passed through many ups and downs, and with it the political parties including the Left. A new phase of politics has come, and the system itself has shown signs of crack-up in morals, and politics unfortunately has lost its ethical qualities which was the hall-mark of our freedom struggle. As a front-rank leader of the Left, Jyoti Basu has played his role. And yet the judgement on the Left has to be delivered not by onlookers like the present writer, but by the people, the common people of our great country.

A criticism of the Left which with all humility one would like to submit before the entire gallery of Left leaders is that so far no cogent and comprehensive assessment has come from any of them about the dramatic collapse of the Soviet Union. No set of Left leaders has provided an adequate answer to it though they were the ones who commonded the system that the USSR had stood for.

Much in the same way, the Left leadership of today has not yet explained to the public, not even to their own following, in a lucid, understandable manner how to reconcile the economic policies of the Left government in West Bengal over which Jyoti Basu himself presides - with the tenets of socialism which he and his party are committed to. This is said not in the manner of a carping critic but as one who is genuinely interested in the work of the Left and the perspective that it upholds. In a democracy, the common people are the masters and the judges. As a bystander, one may have many comments to raise: the questions for which answers are yet to come, and only the mightly humanity of this country shall throw up.