January 17, 2010

INDIA: Communist patriarch Jyoti Basu, dies at 95

. KOLKATA, West Bengal / The Times of India / January 17, 2010 By Saugata Roy, Times News Network Veteran communist and former chief minister Jyoti Basu passed away on Sunday at 11.47 am. CPM state secretary Biman Bose broke the news after all efforts failed to revive the 95-year old leader suffering from multi-organ failure. In this file photograph taken on July 8, 2009, veteran communist leader Jyoti Basu greets well-wishers on his birthday at his residence in Kolkata. (AFP Photo) For the last 17 days while he dared the inevitable with his failing organs at a city hospital, India came down to Kolkata praying for Jyoti Basu — a scene Bengal never witnessed after Satyajit Ray. With his passing away on Sunday Bengal lost a voice that Delhi could hardly ignore. ( Watch Video ) All roads led to the Salt Lake hospital as the news spread in the city. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described Basu as one of the "great sons of India". Union finance minister P Chidambaram who came to the city on Sunday paid his last tribute calling him a "colossus" in Indian politics. "His death marked the end of an era in Indian politics," said film-maker Mrinal Sen. Basu had donated his body. It will be kept in peace Haven, and the last journey will begin on Tuesday, CPM leaders said. In a political career spanning seven decades, Jyoti Basu never stepped out of the party line. Except once. Even his unflappable poise cracked in the face of his party’s obstinate resolve not to join the non-BJP, non-Congress National Front government at the Centre after the 1996 Lok Sabha elections. He could have gone where no communist had ever gone in India. The Prime Minister's chair was his for the taking. But the party would have none of it. Basu called the decision a "historic blunder." But, Basu was not the one to split hairs over what could have been, He never contested the Lok Sabha polls, but continued to influence national politics till the very end. Born into privilege (his father was a US-trained doctor) and educated in elite institutions ( Loreto, St Xavier’s School and Presidency College), few would have expected Jyoti Basu to grow into one of the most important communist leaders of his time. Even in his last days, confined to a bed, Jyoti Basu had the power to influence national politics. The charismatic leader was confined to his home for the last two years due to his age and failing health. But that only made Indira Bhavan a must visit for politicians — from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to CPM general secretary Prakash Karat — ensuring Bengal’s visibility in the national scene. Railway minister Mamata Banerjee, who seldom talks to anyone in the CPM, has been to Indira Bhavan on quite a few occasion. With Basu’s passing, the West Bengal CPM stands dwarfed, losing the mettle it had inherited since the days of the undivided CPI. In his long political career starting with being elected to the Bengal Legislative Assembly in 1946, he was one of the driving forces behind the transformation of Indian communists from the days of ‘yeh azadi jhootha hai’ (this is fake Independence) to playing an integral role in the parliamentary system. Basu influenced this course in his own way, aiming at a blend between communist principles of democratic centralism with the ideals of bourgeois democracy. It was this effort that gave the minority within his party a voice that no Stalin or Deng did offer. What is the magic behind this state-level politician’s drawing attention at the national level? It was perhaps because Basu had been the kingmaker on several occasions though he stopped short of being king. Basu and former CPM general secretary Harkishen Singh Surjeet threw up various political formations building bridges with new forces. Beginning his career as a trade unionist, Basu emerged as Leader of the Opposition. His meteoric rise did not escape the notice of chief minister Bidhan Chandra Roy. Basu was not an orator like Somnath Lahiri or a party ideologue like Bhabani Sen, EMS Namboodiripad or BT Randive, but he was the one who could connect with the masses with his usual incomplete sentences. What’s more, he had the rare quality to strike the golden mean between diverse opinions without affecting the individual views. There were occasions when Basu was a minority in the party. In fact, Basu and former CPM general secretary EMS Namdooripad were opposed to the split in Communist Party of India (CPI) in 1964. At a time when his comrades, such as Promode Dasgupta were pushing for the split, Basu sided with the ‘centrists’, floating a thesis to stop the divide. He joined CPM, a little later, as a politburo member. But that is not the only occasion. Basu fell out with his colleagues in the CPM politburo when the party pulled the plugs on the Morarji Desai government in July 1979 on grounds that the government was taking anti-working class positions and was also silent over person’s holding dual membership of the Janata Party and the RSS. CPM stalwarts Harkishen Singh Surjeet and BT Randive had advocated the pull out while Basu held that the move would ensure the return of Indira Gandhi. The Surjeet-Randive line prevailed over the Bengal line leading to the formation of the Charan Singh government. Basu never tried to marginalise his detractors inside the party, as is often seen in communist parties. As a result many who opposed him on one issue stood solidly by him on another. CPM hardliner BT Randive had come down to Kolkata in 1985 to give the necessary ideological support to Basu’s joint sector industry model with multinationals. The proposal had triggered a fierce debate within the Bengal CPM. Again Basu was a minority in the CPM politburo and the central committee when the party decided against joining the United Front government at the Centre in 1996 — the historic blunder phase. The party central committee took a decision by a show of hands. Prakash Karat led the brigade and host of comrades from Bengal namely Biman Bose, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and Anil Biswas endorsed the party stand. Basu did not give up though. He bore with the party and helped in initiating intra-party discussions that finally led to the change in the CPM party programme over participation in the central government. Even during the debate over the Indo-US nuclear deal, Basu was not keen on pulling the plugs on the Congress-led UPA government. He wanted the Left to oppose the deal and wait for the right opportunity to link issues such as price rise before the final pull out. But it did not happen. The ailing nonagenarian was quite upset with the development. He talked about it in close circles when the Left Front leaders called on him. Bed-ridden in his last days, Basu slowly withdrew himself from the daily party affairs but could sense the downward slide. Basu’s passing away will hardly affect the day-to-day functioning of the CPM. It would rather have an impact on the generation that grew with Basu’s typical address at the Brigade Parade Grounds: bandhugan, mayera, bhayera, bonera... [rc] Copyright © 2010 Bennett, Coleman & Co. Ltd.