IF familiarity breeds contempt, there are clearly advantages that accrue from being a stranger to the corridors of power in Delhi. An enduring mystery for many Calcuttans has been the reverence with which Jyoti Basu has been regarded across the nation ever since the CPI(M) top brass forced him to decline the United Front invitation to be prime minister 18 months ago. Recently, even someone as sensible as Bhaskar Ghose opined in The Telegraph that by depriving the United Front of Basu's seasoned leadership, the Left deserved much of the blame for the failure of the government. If only Basu had been allowed to lead the UF, goes the argument, his experience in managing a coalition would have ensured that things turned out differently. Revelling in the afterglow of what might have been, Basu has been keeping this debate alive, reiterating earnestly at campaign meetings that the CPI(M)'s decision was a "historic blunder".(Well, few of us are the most objective judges of our limitations.)
When this refrain extends beyond the perennially deluded Left, however, it is time to expose. Or, to borrow an Arundhati-ism, what exactly is Basu's "Locust Stand I"? It is true that Calcutta has not looked better in years. The phones work well enough today and eight-hour power cuts are indeed a distant memory—which may explain why people forget that both problems were largely the result of the Left's ineffectual stewardship of the state with Basu presiding over the chaos, as chief minister from 1977 onwards. To this one-time Calcuttan, praising Basu for Calcutta's "turnaround" in the past few years seems a little like congratulating an arsonist for belatedly rebuilding the lobby of the grand mansion he burned down. There are plenty of reasons why we should condemn the manner in which Sitaram Yechuri and Harkishen Singh Surjeet hobbled the UF government, but denying Basu the chance to be prime minister is not necessarily one of them.