Jyoti Basu’s death did not come as a shock to anyone. He was 96 years old and ailing. A journalist friend confessed that he, like many colleagues, had kept an obituary of the Communist leader ready for months! Chances are that Basu would have had a good laugh about this. He was known to have had a wry sense of humour. When he was chief minister, the Lord Ganesha-guzzling-milk incident happened. At a press conference a scribe, probably hoping to elicit a sarcastic remark from the secular Marxist about the preposterous fraud, commented, in Bengali, “Jyoti babu, Ganesh toh dudh khacchey (Jyoti babu, Ganesh is drinking milk)! Basu turned to him and said matter-of-factly, “Khachhe khaak” (So, let him drink)!
Ever since he was admitted to hospital on January 1 with acute pneumonia and little chance of recovery, a stream of political dignitaries, cutting across ideology—including the prime minister, several CMs and top Left leaders from outside Bengal—began pouring in from across the country to pay what they no doubt considered their last respects to the man who was India’s longest-serving chief minister, having ruled over Bengal for more than four consecutive elected terms. The fact that Basu himself was unconscious and on life-support and, therefore, oblivious to the visits made little difference.
There is consensus that Basu was a formidable figure. The point to ponder is what exactly he accomplished that earned him this distinction? “Jyoti Basu had an incredible ability to mobilise mass movements,” Biman Bose, state secretary of the CPI(M) and a long-time associate of Basu, told Outlook. “He could understand the pulse of the people very well, especially the downtrodden.”
In practice, this meant Basu had identified the most basic needs of the poor. When he came to power in 1977, he implemented the land reforms that he had promised during the pre-election campaigns (sharecroppers, who constituted a majority of poor landless farmers and peasants, were given land rights and legitimacy). For the 23 long years that he stayed in power, the solid foundation of trust which Bengal’s rural population had in Basu’s government was never shaken. It took a Nandigram, a Singur and a Lalgarh to do that.
But Basu is blamed, with every justification, for being pro-worker at the cost of industry. His personal friend but fierce political foe, former CM Siddhartha Shankar Ray, holds Basu responsible for “driving out industry and development from the state”. Ray told Outlook, “I will miss Jyoti bitterly because he was my dearest friend. But Jyoti has a lot to answer to posterity.” Among those to criticise Basu for his lack of vision as far as industry and development is concerned is author Sunil Gangopadhyay. “There is no denying Basu’s charisma,” he told Outlook, “but he completely negated industry and development”. Indeed, many in Bengal, and not just educated middle-class emigres, hold him responsible for the current state of Bengal as an industrial wasteland.
Some say it was his personality more than his policies that led to his success. For over two decades he shepherded a coalition called the Left Front, which in the last ten years since he resigned as CM has been showing up cracks that are growing wider by the day. “When Jyoti Basu said something, no one thought of refuting it,” says Debabrata Biswas, general secretary of the All India Forward Bloc and Left Front partner.
Kshiti Goswami, leader of the Revolutionary Socialist Party, another Left Front constituent, has criticised Buddhadeb Bhattacharya for Nandigram and Singur, but when it comes to Jyoti Basu, he expresses his awe. “Now there is so much bickering amongst the Left Front partners, but in Jyoti Basu’s time it was not so. Even after he retired, we ran to him for solutions to our problems.”
Somnath admits he had consulted Basu and received his approval before not resigning from the post of LS speaker.
Basu was the adhesive that kept the Left Front partners together. Even in the last ten years, members of the CPI(M) and other constituent partners would seek his opinion on a gamut of matters. Speaking to Outlook, Somnath Chatterjee admitted he had consulted Basu and received his approval before taking the decision not to resign from the post of speaker during the no-confidence motion against the UPA government, a decision for which Chatterjee was subsequently expelled from the party. Chatterjee hinted that it was this same pettiness of his party which prevented Basu from becoming the prime minister in 1996. “He was a master of coalition politics and he was the right man to lead the nation,” he says.
Though Basu later called his party’s decision “a historic blunder”, the 1996 episode established his reputation as a man who was above greed for power. When he called the party decision a ‘historic blunder’, did he mean it was an opportunity missed for himself personally, or for his party and the Communists to come to power at the Centre? There is some debate on this.
Whatever it may have been, Basu might soon have started losing interest. Gangopadhyay, who visited him a couple of months back, said, “He told me, ‘I don’t know why I’m still alive. I don’t know how to die. I have spectacles, but I cannot see. I have a hearing aid, but I cannot hear....’” Death, quiet and merciful, must have come as a release.
Basu, who came from a privileged background and received an Anglicised education, loved to wear starched white dhotis. Subhash Chakraborty’s wife Romola says he had a “fetish for fish”. In other words, the quintessential Bengali. And one who left, for better or for worse, an indelible impression on the socio-economic landscape of Bengal.