A century and five years ago he opened his eyes to the world. Nine years ago he passed on. Between his birth and his death, Jyoti Basu lived and breathed, for the most part, the politics of conviction. And conviction politics was for him absolute belief in the power of Marxism to do good, to clothe the masses in the raiment of dignity. Nothing else was of consequence.
There was the leonine about him. Jyoti Basu was precisely what his name epitomised. He was light unto millions of Bengalis on the other side of the historical divide. He was a politician the likes of whom will never be again, for it was a grand combination of ideology and conviction which worked as the underpinning of his politics in all the decades that saw him transformed from student to lawmaker to chief minister to elder statesman.
You cannot say, at any point, that Basu stumbled anywhere. Of course, he did not make it to power at the national level when in 1996 a distinct possibility arose of his taking charge as India’s prime minister. How that might have worked out is something we cannot configure in the recesses of our imagination. But there can be no gainsaying here that a communist prime minister for India would indeed shake up the world and especially at a time when the reputation of socialism was in bad shape, if not exactly in tatters.
Basu did not stumble in 1996. It was his party, the CPI(M), which shot down the idea that he should be prime minister. The party would, in the tenuous state of Indian coalition politics of the time, have vetoed anyone else in any case. Its argument was simple: it was not ready to govern in Delhi. Irritated but compliant, Basu agreed to go along with the decision anyway. And he went along with his party out of the conviction that for politicians who mean business, it is always the party to be deferred to. And for communists especially, defying the party was tantamount to upsetting the norms of morality on which political behaviour rests.
In later times, Somnath Chatterjee defied the party and refused to walk away from the speaker’s chair in the Lok Sabha. The CPI (M) quickly disowned him and threw him out. Jyoti Basu was different. He was not willing to turn his back on a party he had in large measure shaped in modern times. He turned his back on the prime minister’s office. His subsequent characterisation of the CPI(M)’s position on the probability of his rise to the highest political office in the land as a historic blunder will always be a matter of opinion and perhaps research.
Jyoti Basu’s moment in the sun was fundamentally the twenty three years in which he presided over the fortunes of West Bengal as its chief minister. That is a record not to be beaten easily. And he was there, at the heights, precisely because of the diverse ways in which he put his politics of socialist conviction into implementation mode. He focused on the village, on a development of its infrastructure, for communist philosophy upholds the principle that roots are what matter. The petit bourgeoisie, Basu knew, had always had its priorities skewed. He had observed it in the days before he took charge of West Bengal in 1977.
Urbanisation was doing no good and parties like the Congress, with their focus on industrial development in and around the cities, were conveniently letting go of the truth that a bypassing of the rural interior was in effect an advocacy of progress at the level of the ridiculous. In Ashim Dasgupta, Basu had a finance minister who could plumb the depths of rural misery. Together the two men, along with their colleagues in the Left Front government, went for an empowerment of the villages. The reasoning was simple: it was the natural thing to do. An enlightened and grateful electorate went on returning Jyoti Basu and his team to power.
Basu was the consummate politician, hardened to the core through years of dedication to the cause of public welfare. Free of the middle class temptations that often lead politicians to their doom, Basu and his fellow communists made it a point to follow through on their pledges of social reforms. And they did it with firmness tempered by finesse. For Jyoti Basu, the ease with which he placed his reforms in place was in effect a result of the long years he had spent studying, besides the law, theories of politics and the objectives politics sought to meet.
As a student in distant England in the late 1930s, it fell upon the very involved Basu to arrange a meeting of Indian students with a visiting Jawaharlal Nehru. He was to repeat the exercise with Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. In England, it was Harold Laski in whose thoughts Jyoti Basu spotted light unto the future. And then there was Rajani Palme Dutt, the suave political icon of Indian origin in whom the young discerned brilliance of political thought and its exposition, to whom the youthful Basu was drawn.
Basu’s infatuation with politics turned into a full-blown love affair when in 1946 he was elected, as a communist, to the West Bengal Legislative Assembly. Of course, he had little way of knowing that within a year Bengal and with it India would stand partitioned as a consequence of the irreconcilable differences between the Congress and the Muslim League. There is not much of evidence to show, though, that at that point Basu was overly concerned with the future of what still was an undivided India. Marxism was clearly his preoccupation, devotion to which would increasingly be part of his thought pattern as India embarked on independent statehood. Nehruvian socialism did not make much of an impression on Basu, for he thought, in the manner of communists everywhere, that equality could not come in incremental form through an application of typical political tools but through bold initiatives across the spectrum.
Jyoti Basu’s future beckoned in 1967. Having served as leader of the opposition in the West Bengal Assembly for the preceding ten years, he joined the Ajoy Mukherjee-led United Front state government as deputy chief minister. The future came in 1977. It would lengthen itself to 2000, when he stepped down from office for health reasons.
There was the consummate politician in Jyoti Basu. Bidhan Chandra Roy recognised early on the creative fire in him. Basu was a voracious reader and an indefatigable exponent of political theory. In the nineties, with communism crumbling everywhere but West Bengal, he went pragmatic. Keeping the ideology of the CPI(M) intact, he toured the West to ask that businesses invest in his state. There was no end to his detractors. They could not bring him down, for they had little in terms of an alternative to offer the people of West Bengal.
In the passing of Jyoti Basu passed an era into history. He was a great Indian and a Bengali to the core. Beyond all that, he was a politician who made us believe, constantly and without question, in the edifying calling that politics was and always will be.
(Jyoti Basu was born on 8 July 1914 and passed away on 17 January 2010)