Jyoti Basu: The Last Gentleman

Writing an obituary for Jyoti Basu is as difficult a writing task as any I could have attempted. This is because he had a universal presence in my political consciousness. This presence was for real – he was the Chief Minister of the state I lived in for quarter of a century. I grew up seeing him as the Chief Minister, and he did not retire until after I left home and started living abroad. In a way, I have never known any other Chief Minister of West Bengal.

Besides, there is another, emotional, dimension to that presence. He was the last of a generation of people who presented a linkage to our pre-independence past, those who shaped the ideas in modern India and carried it to the present day. In his imperious, Bengali babu style, Jyoti Basu was an unlikely communist. Though he created and led, with others, the pre-eminent Left party in India, he was Nehruvian, in his thinking, in his approach, in his ideas about Modern India.

He will be sorely missed. He is possibly one person who merged the Communist ideological fervour with the modern Indian mainstream. In fact, he may have undermined the revolutionary communist movement in India more than any other communist leader in the country, and by doing so, helped carve an independent and unique course for the left movement in India. Whether that helped the cause of the Socialist movement is another perspective; but, it is undeniable that Jyoti Basu represented the last of the generation, which created the Modern India as we see it today.

Much has been said about his impact on West Bengal. I have come across some very uncharitable commentaries about him among the Bengali NRI circles, where he is loathed, nearly universally. That may also be true for the wider circle of Bengali babus, where he is seen as the one who undermined his own. He is usually blamed for all sorts of things, including the stagnation in Bengali life and the loss of competitive edge over other states in contemporary India. He also has the unparalleled distinction of being accused of elitism by the elitist, and of undermining the state’s education and healthcare systems to the advantage of private businesses at the same time.

In retrospect, however, it may seem that he actually saved the Bengali middle class, at least for a while. Interestingly, Bengal remains one of the last states where upper castes still hold the sway, and if you are an upper caste urban Hindu, you can still win votes in a predominantly rural, predominantly Muslim or scheduled caste constituency. As was true for, recently and paradoxically, for the likes of Satabdi Roy, who contested with an opposition ticket. Jyoti Basu’s reign kept Bengal outside the caste and religious politics that dominated much of the other Indian states, or at least subverted the argument in favour of a democratic, party-based, political identity.

Interestingly, it is possible to see both sides of the same achievement. By reshuffling the priorities of caste, Jyoti Basu created in Bengal a democratic model which Nehru would have approved, but one which created a coalition of upper caste, urban and privileged Hindus, who ruled the state for last half decade by extending their influence at village level through its control of political consciousness, aided by a system of sharing of privileges. This defied the gravitational force of the affirmative action movement that dominated the rest of the country, with mixed consequences. One can argue that this helped West Bengal to remain true to its progressive identity, and emerge as a state more democratic than some other states in this regard. On the other hand, pursuit of the status quo reined the agenda, and lack of social movements added to the Bengali inertia to create an unparalleled level of stagnation once the power configuration was reconstituted with the Left Front’s accession to power in 1977.

His contribution to the India’s federal politics is subtler and will require a more nuanced analysis. The talk today centers around what seemed to be his big moment in 1996, when he was offered the Prime Ministership by the United Front leaders, but which he turned down in deference to his party’s decision not to participate in the government. He never accepted the political wisdom of this decision, called it a ‘Historical Blunder’ in a later interview, and implied that the left’s shunning of responsibility at the national level paved the way for an eventual BJP rule, and arguably, the shameful communal riots like the one in Gujrat. However, in a sense, he had his own historical blunder back in the late eighties, when he and other communist leaders teamed up with the BJP in the first place to unseat Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress government.

After those rather brief experiments at the national stage during the period of United Front experiment, he retreated to the state politics fulsomely, leaving the matters of national policy to his younger colleagues and the matters of national governance to a Centre-Left coalition led by Congress. He almost made peace with his own historical blunder, and that of his party’s, by taking a stance during another potentially damaging political decision made by the Party Politburo over the Indo-US nuclear issue. Though he never spoke against the party in public, those who are aware of the Bengali sensibilities knew full well that the decision by the then Communist Speaker of the Parliament, Somnath Chatterjee, to refuse to resign from his post had been a symbolic display of dissent by the Party Patriarch himself.

So, what will be Jyoti Basu’s legacy? In a way, it seems, being the last of the men from a different generation, he would end up taking his legacy with him. In my mind, the historical parallel can be seen with Churchill, who was often referred to as the Last Lion, who lived to see his generation wither away in nostalgia. Churchill deeply influenced the world which came after him – I would argue that all of Cold War was primarily Churchill’s invention which he sold to the Americans to prevent a wholesale collapse of Britain – but he lived his life representing an age and a reality which was past its time. So did Jyoti Basu, our everlasting First Gentleman of Bengal who was the last of a Gentleman’s generation, who was already out of his time and context with what was happening around us.

Unlike Churchill, however, Jyoti Basu’s legacy will primarily be felt with the absence of a legacy. In the national stage, the Communist Party is already paying for its strategic blunder of not aligning with the Centre-Left coalition, and as a consequence, they are veering towards the left in search of an identity. However, they may find a void on the left, as democracies invariably centralize ideologies, and may seek their place in the context of caste-based identity politics in India. This will eventually undermine their constructs in West Bengal, and eventually the secular make-up the party’s founding brother strove to achieve. The democratic left will possibly wither away in a generation, dissolving themselves in a band of Greens, Socialists and Permanent Revolutionaries [not in the Trotskyite sense, but in the storm-in-the-teacup sense].
And, in that void, the picture of the Old Comrade will still remain omnipresent, like that in my childhood memories.


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