TWENTY-THREE years of political leadership by a person should be enough for a historian to assess the impact his leadership would have had. Once the current emotions die down, political historians will not take much time to write their histories of the Basu period in Bengal politics.
When he took over the reins of political administration, Jyoti Basu had a massive mandate. The mainstream Left had captured the imagination of the masses, the extreme-left radicals had proved to be a failure in popular perception and the desire for a decent, democratic, political life—made healthy by some urgent reforms of land, education, urban life and restoration of dignity to the lower strata of the society—had proved crucial in bringing the Left to power in West Bengal. To be fair to the Left, they never promised drastic reforms, and its leader Basu symbolised the desire for a "normal life" that Bengal craved for. As the state got more and more marginalised in national politics, the desire to make the best of the limits of its politics and its place under the Indian sun grew acute.
But there hangs a tale. Inadequate land reforms, famines and near famines, industrial stagnation, the dual phenomena of widespread sunset industries in Bengal and the domiciling of sunrise industries elsewhere and the overall dominance of a petty-producer economy led to a more conspicuous stagnation of the state. While Basu was right as ever in preaching moderation, for in open democratic politics only liberal gradualism succeeds, he had nothing new to offer. The classes whose broad shoulders had given support to the Left to stand, got little in terms of material benefits and nothing in terms of education for a new politics. Administration stagnated, corruption spread, partisanship became the cult of the age. And in all this Basu symbolised what was relevant and antiquated in the Left, particularly its Bengal version.
To him and the politics he led, the new issues and new struggles for environment, for cooperativisation of economic life, tolerance for dissent, a new culture of dialogue, human rights, struggle against national chauvinism and for peace were not the substantive issues. In theory, he continued with the old metaphors, in practice he settled for the most intriguing kind of conformism.
This was amazing. For, while anti-communalism, anti-casteism, spread of education, limited land reforms, and the patronisation of a broader public sphere as distinct from the limited political society that the gentlemen of Bengal politics inhabited in the pre-Left days remained the distinct marks of the political rule of the Basu age, its fundamental concern remained conformist. Thus whoever proposed an agenda of political imagination was utopian, anarchist, terrorist, unrealist and, therefore, mad. Basu could only stress on constitutional sanity. Little did he recognise that what the masses feared most in this country's political class was constitutionalism. Civility, sanity, normalcy—that is what Bengal craved after the militant decades of the fifties and the sixties, and the repressive years of the seventies. That is what Bengal got in Basu and his government. If below that civility lay stagnation, poverty and fatigue, Bengal initially did not care. But 23 years is surely a long enough period for these to come upfront and out in the open.
No wonder then that the same nation of Bengal, which had erupted with joy and ecstasy a few years ago when Basu's name was suggested for the prime minister's post, now seems to lap up a political leader who has embarked on a populist journey and, therefore, has nearly usurped the political treasure of the Left.It only shows what Bengal is capable of thinking in this age.
(The author is a political scientist and is director, Peace Studies Programme, South Asia Forum For Human Rights, Kathmandu)