Of Jyoti Basu

N.RAM Editor, Front Line
Jyoti Basu, now an octogenarian, is a rare kind of political leader and a rare kind of man. His accomplishments in public life are well known, even if (in the absence of a proper biography) his personal history is known to a relatively small circle. He is way and ahead the longest serving Chief Minister independent India has had. The State of Bengal, under his stewardship, offers a model of political stability and guided progressive change which has few parallels in the imperfect federal arrangement that is political India. If there are weaknesses and failings in the post-1977 performance in office, no one is more conscious of these than the man at the helm (as you find out quickly when you interview him, or talk to him informally).

In fact, as has been pointed out in the national press, the Left Front experience constitutes something of a world record. No communist-led government in any other part of the world has won such a succession of electoral victories . . . and how ! ... over such a long period in a pluralistic political system. The Left Front has managed to maintain a better than three fourths majority of seats in all the four Assembly elections held from 1977, with the CPI(M) by itself winning an absolute majority every time. last time, in May 1991, the margins of victory were greater than ever before, the geographicxl sweep and spread overpowering.

Prior to the United Front experiments (of the late 1960s) which prepared the ground for the Left Front era, Jyoti Basu had worked long years in the trade union movement and as a Communist party organiser. When he returned from England as a barrister-at-law, it was not in the legal field that he made a mark. It was as a Communist activist and organiser and as a trade union builder. As a student in England, he had embraced Marxism and it was the Communist movement - its twists and turns, its triumphs and failures and, above all, its indisputable relevance to India's massive problems - that would be his future.

Suffice it to say that long years ago, the young man made a mark in the undivided party by dint of his capabilities, the sincerity of his commitment to the cause of the working class and working people, his organising and persuasive skills, the breadth and sophistication of his outlook, the force and attractiveness of his personality, his style of work that, even on first appearance, marked him out of the ordinary. As he matured in a movement which witnessed a number of differences and internal struggles, his straightforwardness, clarity, cleanness and team spirit were highly valued.

He acquired the reputation of being a unifier, a 'moderate' (to borrow the language of the press), one who tried to keep all his comrades together. It was also held or alleged widely that he was imbued with 'charisma' (whatever that means; actually it seems a lazy way of saying that a person has a set of qualities and effects that impress, inspire and move those around). When there was no alternative to a split in the Com­munist movement, Jyoti Basu chose, calmly, clearly and decisively, the road that has a revolutionary future. Which is to say that in the mid-1960s he became a founder leader of the CPI(M). Along with E.M.S. Namboodiripad and Harkishen Surjeet, the present general secretary, he is the· Po lit Bureau member who represents the second generation communist experience in India. Belonging to a fraternity of Communist giants the majority of whom are gone ( A. K. Gopalan, Pramode Dasgupta, P. Sun­darayya, P. Ramamurthi, B. T. Ranadive, M. Basavapunniah), he embodies continuity at the top. It is continuity with a phase (if you like) of shining idealism and innocence.

The world has changed a great deal since this second generation of Indian Com­munists were drawn by the freedom struggle and the revolutionary cause. In terms of sheer quality, ideological and political as well as personal, and moral stature, it is unlikely that this generation will be bettered.
Jyoti Basu as a leader and administrator is reputed for the clarity of his vision, for his gift of focussing on central issues and tasks, for his brisk, laidback practicality. Sometimes, he is miscalled a 'pragmatist' a label (employed admiringly in some quarters) which he amusedly but emphatically rejects. (They're saying we are pragmatists, he remarked to me in an interview for Frontline in early 1995, ((Because Jyoti Basu is a pragmatist." I said, ((I'm not a pragmatist. I'm a Marxist".'

Often he sounds disarmingly simple, especially' in interviews. From time to time, this trait has been mistaken or rather deliberately misinterpreted, by both ultra-left, dogmatists and anti-Comtnunistjournalists, as a lack of ideological and political depth. What it is essentially is a genius for cutting through confusion, obfuscation, casuistry and cant. His neat, ordered and nimble mind, and the habits and style acquired over more than half a century of revolutionary work (where straightforwardness with the masses was highly valued) always work against the Muddle.

An example : he never tries of countering the misapprehension or distortion put out in the press about character of the left Front experiment he heads in West Bengal. It is not a socialist economy and system operating here. (We have not made tall promises,' he pointed out to me. Whatever we can do, we have told them. One thing we cannot do : that is, bring about fundamental changes. Because we are not a republic of West Bengal! We are a part of India' where capitalism and landlordism are the government realities.

In this perspective, the Left Front, and the CPI(M) which leads it work against tough odds. They work within the harsh constratints of the system to advance the interests of the working people, to provide relief to them, and to educate them on what is and is not feasible. They work to uphold the cause of democracy, secularism and socialism, which give the Left Front its defining orientation.
What they can do, and have been doing very effectively, is to (bring about such reforms by which prople will feel that somebody is looking at them ... and that we are trying to do out best. Even if we don't succeed, we take the people into confidence and tell them why we have not succeeded in certain spheres and that they should understand. '

The Left Front will always look for opportunities within the system to gain ad­vantages for the State and its people in the socio-economic, industrial, agricultural, scientific, cultural and indeed political fields. Thus, the Left Front's new industrial and economic policies express a dual reality.

They are opposed to the Centre's economic liberalisation and globalisation policies on the grounds that they
(a) weaken or erode sovereignty,
(b) are anti-people,
(c) retard rather than stimulate growth impulses in the economy, and
(d) militate in several ways (for example, in terms of Central investment) against the States in general and West Bengal in particular.

At the same time, West Bengal must take 'the fullest advantage' of the space and opportunities available today in the new policy environment. Those who cannot appreciate this duality in the situation will always find themselves inside the Muddle, unable to see clearly and grasp the contradictory dynamics in the situation.

Given the remarkable turnround in the power situation brought about by an in­spired policy intervention plus an extraordinarily brilliant scientist Power Minister leading from the front, and given the promotional thrust of the new State policies, there are signs of a major industrial resurgence and upswing in West Bengal. 'People who never talked to us before', the Chief Minister pointed, 'they are talking to us .. . Now with freight equalisation ... with licensing done away with in many industries, we have to provide the infrastructure. We don't have to depend on Delhi. That is why people are coming to us.'

It is a promise that needs to be realised. The trends that are discernible have to be consolidated over the next five-year term which the Deft Front is sure to win in an electorally overpowering way. At the same time, it must be recognised frankly and critically that sometimes the enthusiasm to promote, to make up for the effects of past discrimination, and to change the rules of the economic game in the State can go too far. Going along a new policy track usually involves some excesses of enthusiasm and overcorrection. A balance needs to be constantly maintained, which requires monitoring and critical scrutiny of the experiment from a baseline made up of clearly worked out Left Pinciples and objectives.

The next five-year term for the Left Front will start some time in the first half of 1996 and Jyoti Basu will shape it, making fresh qualitative inputs. 'That will be my last innings,' he has been quoted as saying in the press. Who can tell? But even if it be so, by the time this batsman puts away his pads and gloves, his record in the middle will have literally taken West Bengal into the Twenty-first century. He certainly does not need to play to any gallery. With his ripeness of experience, he can shape both the next term and the future of the Left Front which can no longer be termed an 'experiment'.

There are tasks to be accomplished, gaps to be overcome, successes to be consolidated.
Journalism as a field is intrinsically superficial. And one of the superficialities put out tirelessly by the Indian press is that there is essentially no difference between the economic policies pursued by the Narasimha Rao and Jyoti Basu governments; and, indeed, that the latter is a more avid practitioner of the policies of unrestrained capitalism than any other State government. I have already dealt with this point in relation to industry and investment.

What is either missed, or inadequately realised, in press discussion of what is happening on the policy front in West Bengal is the background of solid accomplishment in the socio-economic field. Without that base, none of the new initiatives would be possible. The Left Front's record in rural areas, its land reform measures, the registration of share croppers ('Operation Barga') and a working panchayat system ... these have virtually no parallels among States in India. Over the past two decades, the CPI(M) and the Left Front have powerfully consolidated their support base among the rural poor.

The Left Front has an exemplary record in nourishing and safeguarding communal hatmony in the State, in the [ace of certmn provocations. West Bengal, where Muslims form over a fifth of the population, has been one of the States targeted by the saffron brigade for mischief-making; the 'alien' issue was sought to be worked up particularly in districts bordering Bangladesh. But the response from the State government was to read the early warning signals and act pre-emptively to safeguard the peace; this has been backed by a continuous effort to raise popular consciousness about the imperative of defending secularism. Maintaining communal amity in such a political environment is therefore not much of a challenge.

Given the long incumbency of the Left Front, there is bound to be a little loss of shine, some measure of disillusionment in certain constituences, particularly among middle class sections. But this appears to be a limited urban phenomenon. It is the tremendous consolidationofmass support in the countryside that neutralises such trends, rendering the Left Front virtually unbeatable in the foreseeable future.

The performance can certainly do with improvement in the field of education, primary education in particular, West Bengal has done very well in its literacy cam­paigns but such campaigns must be seen as no more than mopping up operations. The absence of a working system of compulsory primary eductiuon, which ensures that all girls and boys of primary school-going age are, by law, in school and no one of this age group is in the labour force (for whatever reason), means that illiteracy is constantly being engendered at the base. Sociological surveys have shown that those most affected are girls as a group and, in particular, children belonging to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and other most disadvantaged sections of the working poor.

Free, compulsory primary education will make enormous demands on the State in terms of resource and back-up - in terms of providing buildings, elementary teach­ing material and teachers adequate to cope with the tremendous increase in demand. It wiil also mean an emphasis on basic quality. Such a system will need strict and consistent monitoring and enforcement. There must be solidarity and empathy with those are to be netted and brought to school. In a society like India's such a project would seem to require the backing of a free mid-day meal programme of the kind Tamil Nadu has. A policy decision on this key social question is overdue in West Bengal.
If the basic educational situation is not remedied in a big way, particularly in rural areas, over the next left Front term, historians could reckon it as a significant failure of the Jyoti Basu stewardship of the affairs of the State.

What about the qualities of the man? One political veteran observed to me several years ago that no one since Netaji has been able to command such affection and un­shakeable loyalty among the masses in West Bengal, as Jyoti Basu. See him in a crowd, in Calcutta or in rural Bengal, and you begin to understand why this reticent, almost shy man is the darling of the millions, he makes it clear that he is nothing without his movement and his people. He is meticulous about collective discussion and decision-making, to the point of being conspicuously reluctant to express an opionion on an unsettled
 sensitive subject prior to a Polit Bureau or Central Committee meeting.

It would be very easy for a Chief Minister, sans rivals, sans credible challenge, to distance himself from realities, to allow walls to be raised around him. Security concerns could quite easily be allowed to take over, severing the leader from the masses. But 'there is no question of Jyoti Basu falling into any such trap. This is why he visits the Alimuddin Street party office, the State Committee headquartes, virtually every day he is in Calcutta; why he continues to traverse the length and breadth of the large State; why he remains so accessible over the telephone and in person.
Jyoti Basu is an outspoken critic, of the ways of influential sections of the Calcutta press. It is not that he is opposed to criticism and adverse comment. What he finds objectionable to the consistency with which several Calcutta newspapers, Bengali as well as English, distort and twist basic news relating to the Left Front government. A recent case in point is the concocted version appearing in the press of what Land and Land Reforms Minister and veteran CPI(M) leader Benoy Chowdhury had to say about corruption. Remarks explicitly pertaining to the Centre's ways were wantonly twisted to make it appear that the State Government was at fault.

Jyoti Basu is a celebrated public speaker, but this reputation is not built on the conventional orator's stock-in-trade. His power as a mass mobiliser and speaker does not lie in working up the emotions of the crowd, in spell-binding flights of rhetoric. It lies in what his personality expresses; straightforwardness, clarity, transparent sincerity in serving his revolutionary cause, fearlessness. People instinctly recognise that they are bieng given the truth, slicing through the Muddle.

I have heard on Brigade Parade ground in the early 1970s, during the period of semi-fascist terror, addressing over a million people (through an old-fashioned loudspeaker system the echoes of which are caught in some Mrinal Sen films); the rally would come to a close with tens of thousands of newspaper torches held high, lighting up the ground as darkness descended. I have heard him making a militant speech at the foundation conference of the Centre of Trade Unions in Calcutta.

I have listened to him, from onstage, at Haldia a few years ago, inspiring a mass meeting which expressed solidarity with Cuba and celebrated the loading of a ship which was to sail with ten thousand tonnes of foodgrain gifted by the people of India. 'Ten thousand tonnes of solidarity', Fidel would term it when the vessel seen off by Jyoti Basu continents away eventually arrived onthe distant shores of the brave little socialist nation blockaded by U.S. imperialism.

I have participated in a seminar on Centre-State relations and Article 356 where the West Bengal Chie{ Minister's keynote address was a little masterpiece of clear reason­ing and simple exposition on the need for genuine federalism.

I have listened with admiration and pride to the subtleties and cadences of Jyoti Basu the senior statesman inaugurating, in Madras recently, the First National Congress of Jesuit Alumni. He must have worked fairly hard on that speech because, when the invitation was originally pressed on him during an interlude at a Calcutta mass meeting, he seemed almost diffident about what he would have to say to such a gathering.

One could go on quite a bit more about Jyoti Basu the public figure and the man.

What is remarkable over the last twenty five years is the way he has broadened rather than narrowed his outlook. Catch him in his house or at an informal dinner, preferably away from Calcutta, and you realise how many interests he has. He wants to find out more about other countries, other places, other people. About books and cricket. About the '!-ew hospitals and medical centres in different parts of India and about doctors who innovate and serve the people.

He has genuine admiration for those like Dr. S. S. Badrinath, the founder and moving spirit behind (Sankara Nethralaya', the state of the art opthalmic medical centre in Madras which has done such an outstanding job in responding to the needs of ordinary people while emphasising quality and excellence in the care offered. He is known to have a speacial reagrd for Mother Teresa and the order she has raised. I once read in the press Jyoti Basu's response to a question about what was so special about Mother Teresa and why she could always expect to walk into the Chief Minister's office without an appointment. (Because we both love the poor', was the simple explana­tion.

In terms of official decision-making and administration, working with Chief Min­ister Jyoti Basu is deemed to be an education and a pleasure ... provided the bureaucrats are efficient and play straight. When things go wrong, he talks plainly an,d moves fast to set right the administrative situation. Bureaucrats I have spoken to consistently report that they are treated fairly and with dignity and courtesy by the veteran ad­ministrator. He, in turn, has spoken highly on several occasions of the cooperation he manages to get from a lrge number of capable 'and outstanding officials, notably from the 'brilliant' and entirely trustworthy present Chief Secretary who happens to be a Tamil.

Jyoti Basu was campaigning in Tamil Nadu in May 1991. I was out on the road with him for several hours the night Rajiv Gandhi was brutally assassinated at Sriperumbudur. The West Bengal Chief Minister is famous for not revealing his emotions and for keeping his cool under any circumstance. When the news reached us, after it had been confirmed, he was visibly upset and angry ... asking what the country and society had come to. He sat down immediately to write a tribute and message of con­dolence.

The next day, he spoke to me at the State Guest House of his interactions and discussions with Rajiv , providing insights into the man, some of them warm, others critical. He had very little time, you see. The point is that he had very little time. ( Jyoti Basu said, adding honestly, (He didn't do well, you see, the five years he was there. But one always hopes that one learns .... It is a very, very bad thing for India very dangerous for the future.'

My favourite image of Jyoti Basu remains the one from a news agency report after an assassination attempt was made on him some twenty five years ago at Patna railway station. It was a close call but, tragically, an LIC comrade, Mohammed Amin, who had come to receive him was killed. (When the news hit Calcutta early in the morning, everything closed down spontaneously and by noon the Bengal bandh was total.) The news report offered us this unforgettable image: Jyoti Basu, unfazed even during the moment of trauma, moving forward, pointing to the man escaping in the crowd and shouting (Catch him', before being shepherded away to security.