Au revoir Jyoti Basu

T. C. A. Ramanujam, Published in THE HINDU

FREE India has seen several stalwarts as chief ministers. Rajaji, B. C. Roy, Govind Ballabh Pant, Morarji Desai and many others brought glory to their office. This stalwart species vanished with the passing away of Jawaharlal Nehru. One thing common amon g these stalwarts was their Congress origin. It was in Mr Jyoti Basu that India saw the emergence of an absolutely non-Congress, rather anti-Congress, Chief Minister who combined in an unusual manner charisma with character. Mr Basu was born with a silve r spoon in the mouth and could have led an easy life as a barrister. He chose the path of Marxist revolution 60 years back and has never looked back.

Mr Basu became Home Minister in Ajay Mukherjee's Cabinet at the height of the Naxalite movement. Encounter killings and custodial deaths were the order of the day. Kanu Sanyal and Charu Mazumdar arrived at a consensus advocating seizure of land from the jotedars. The credit for ending Naxalite violence and bringing the Marxist-Leninists to the Parliamentary path goes, in no small measure, to Mr Basu and his CPI(M) colleagues.
Land reforms and Panchayat Raj

It was however as Chief Minister that the leadership qualities of Mr Basu came to be seen in full measure. He perfected the art of running a successful coalition government. He rightly focussed attention on empowering the rural peasant. The Estate Act of West Bengal of 1954 had prescribed a ceiling of 25 acres of land for each household. The loopholes in the Act were large enough for the big land owners to escape the ceiling provisions. Land reforms occupied the centrestage of the Leftist Government. Th e total area of vested agricultural land redistributed in hectares and the total number of beneficiaries in West Bengal, as on September 30, 1995, are 3,86,842 and 22,69,959 respectively. Barring Kerala, no other State in India has achieved full scale la nd reforms.

At a time when the rest of India was fighting shy of going in for Panchayati Raj, Mr Basu's government went the whole hog in trying to democratise the Panchayat system in Bengal. It focussed on the need for modification of the relations of production and the forces of production. It emphasised the need for reconstitution of the political power structure through the revival of the Panchayat bodies elected along party lines, and playing its political cards expediently so as to maintain a stable and orderl y regime for a period unsurpassed in Indian history. ( See G. K. Lieten's Development, Devolution and Democracy: Village Discourse in West Bengal and Continuity and Change in Rural West Bengal).

True, there are problems arising from the continuing class character of agrarian relations in the villages and the political practice of the Left Front Government in the context of these class relations. But studies by objective observers such as Mr Swap an Kumar Pramanik and Mr Prabat Dutta, confirm the assumption that Panchayats in West Bengal have largely been responsive to the needs of the people, more particularly those below the poverty line. Even the non-beneficiaries who have reasons to be hostil e to the Panchayats because of their not having derived any benefits, hold the Panchayats in high esteem. Critics may cavil at the fact that the Left Front Government's attempts at cooperative mobilisation, coupled with rural development measures, are no t isolated phenomena from the viewpoint of Left politics but here we enter a dilemma. If the wielders of power concede the point to those who challenge established values and norms, they risk losing their legitimacy. On the other hand, the failure to giv e satisfaction to the discontented might deepen their sense of outrage and alienation which can further reduce their legitimacy. ( See Mitra & Rothermund, Legitimacy and Conflict in South Asia, p 23).

Bengali pride and nationalism

Mr Basu brought dignity and grace to the Marxist governance not only in West Bengal but all over India. In city, town and village there was one group of Bengalis who claimed and were accorded recognition as superior in social status to the mass of their followers. These were the Bhadralok distinguished by the many aspects of behaviour -- their deportment, speech, dress, style of housing, eating habits, occupations and more fundamentally, their cultural values and sense of social proprietary. It is this Bhadralok that took pride in flaunting the images of a Tagore, a Satyajit Ray, an Amartya Sen, a Saurav Ganguly and above all in the political field, a Jyoti Basu. Bengali Nationalism is spirited and emotional, but very different from its counterpart in the South. Time was when it used to be said that what Bengal thought today, the rest of India did tomorrow. Today, the rest of India follows what Tamil Nadu laid down 50 years back and we know with what consequences. It is worth pondering why Bengal unde r Mr Basu made no claims for conferring backward class status on any type of citizens.

Industrial development

Mr Basu is often faulted for failures on the industrial front. He did attempt a sort of Perestroika but the party will have none of it. No privatisation, no invitation to FDIs and no change in labour laws. The party also stood in the way of India having Mr Basu as PM in 1996. Think of the change that would have come over the entire Indian polity if only the idea had been accepted. Who would have dared to vote against a Government at Delhi headed by Mr Basu?

More than a 100 years back, Karl Marx pointed out how men, just when they seem engaged in revolutionising themselves and things, in creating something that has never yet existed, precisely in such periods of revolutionary crises, anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them names, battle cries and costumes to present the new scene of world history in this time honoured disguise and this borrowed language. The Marxist Communists of India will have to realise that the social revolution they have been dreaming of cannot draw its poetry from its past but only from the future. ``Earlier revolutions required recollections of past world history in order to drug themselves concerning their own content. To arrive at its own content, the revolution of today must let the dead bury their dead. There the phrase went beyond the content ; here the content goes beyond the phrase'' (Marx)

Mr Basu can take legitimate pride in the fact that he provided a clean government and became a role-model at a time when the whole country was stinking with corruption all over. It is his honest arrogance that makes him pour contempt at the shrill shriek s from that lady who runs a central ministry from South Calcutta. He has the pride and pugnacity of an innovator. Galileo called one of the defenders of Ptolemic astronomy ignoramus, elephant, fool, dunce, eunuch. Mr Basu's diatribe was not that severe.

India can still opt to have Mr Basu as PM. If only the CPI(M) will relent!