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Monday, January 18, 2010

Basu and Bengal were made for each other

[This is the English version of an obituary published in Ananda Bazar Patrika (Bengali) on January 18, 2010]

By Swapan Dasgupta

Growing up in Calcutta in the 1960’s and early-1970s in a household with strongly Congress inclinations, I can vividly recall the outpouring of venom that greeted the very mention of Jyoti Basu. In those turbulent days spanning the slow loss of Congress dominance and the violent transformation of West Bengal into a “Red Fort”, Basu was at the epicentre of controversy. As the most visible Communist mass leader he was perceived by many as the evil choreographer of West Bengal’s plunge from a settled existence into uncertainty, verging on anarchy.

The image of a fiery revolutionary bent on turning the world upside down may have been sharply at odds with the benign bhadralok who missed becoming India’s first Bengali Prime Minister by a whisker in 1996, and that too as a consensus candidate. But an evolving image was a feature of a gentleman who first became a player before Independence and was in the crease for more than six decades. The Jyoti Basu held under preventive detention in 1962 by Dr B.C. Roy for his known pro-China sympathies was a very man from the venerable elder statesman who helped forge the Congress-CPI(M) understanding at the Centre in May 2004. el2

Few individuals can boast a more fulfilling and chequered political life as Jyoti Basu. Since the time he entered the Legislative Assembly of undivided Bengal way back in 1946, Jyoti Basu has been a decisive force in the politics of West Bengal. As Leader of Opposition from 1952 to 1967 during the days of Congress dominance, Deputy Chief Minister in the two United Front governments between 1967 and 1967, the longest-serving Chief Minister from 1977 to 2000 and elder statesman in his twilight years, Basu’s life encapsulates both the history of West Bengal and the Communist movement since Independence.

History and another generation will be better placed to assess what Jyoti babu made of the many opportunities that came his way. Did he live up the idealism of those bright young Indians from respectable homes who travelled to England in preparation of a career but ended up as revolutionary foot-soldiers of Pollitt and Palme-Dutt? Or did he, in a strange sort of way, live up to his inheritance as a pillar of respectability and stodginess? To use the imagery of Ashok Mitra, was Jyoti Basu more a Communist or more a Bengali bhadralok?

At the sartorial level, the answer was obvious. Aesthetically, there was nothing outlandish and, therefore, Communist about the man. Jyoti babu didn’t fight the class war by wearing rubber chappals and non-ironed clothes to prove his proletarian credentials. Always correct and decorous, he carried himself with an air of superiority, tinged with brusqueness. He loathed flash but liked the tasteful good life and, above all, his summer vacation in London. Jyoti babu was transparent; he wasn’t a poseur.

This innate decency endeared Jyoti babu to a state where the CPI(M) evolved from being a party of radical change to an outfit that championed Bengali regional aspirations. His natural desire to temper the rough edges of ideology made him a natural face of the party in times good and bad. But what did he make of this golden opportunity?castro

Jyoti Basu became Chief Minister of West Bengal in 1977 at a time when the state was engulfed by two distinct crises: an economy crippled by a decade of Left militancy and Congress high-handedness, and a civil society distorted by a perverse sense of entitlement. In his mind Basu knew that recovery was possible if Bengal could reinvent itself as a destination for profitable investment. He was also painfully aware that economic revival was possible if there was an improvement in Bengal’s work culture and decline in the 24x7 preoccupation with politics. Although the Communist victory had been made possible by the collapse of the old culture of deference, Basu knew that the state’s revival was possible by lowering the political temperature.

This was not what his colleagues believed. Initially, the party went in for radical land reforms and decentralisation of power to consolidate its hold in the countryside. But after five years, this strategy had run its course—though the political dividends keep flowing to this day. When it came to the revival of manufacturing and the creation of a new services sector, the Chief Minister found himself outvoted inside the party. His government adopted measures such as the abolition of English teaching till class 5 and the politicisation of institutions which set West Bengal behind by decades. Trade union militancy and crippling power cuts led to the decimation of small and medium industry. To the investing classes, Bengal became a big no-no. Its efficiency was limited to the organisation of bandhs. DHARAM

Basu could have used his clout as the Bengali patriarch to force a reformist agenda. He chose the line of least resistance—arguing feebly for pragmatism inside the party but endorsing the collective view in public. Ideologically, he wasn’t much of a Communist but in following the “party line” faithfully, he was a model Comrade.

Jyoti Basu was India’s longest-serving Chief Minister, being in office for 23 years. Politically, his achievement is colossal. However, measured against where West Bengal stood in 1977 against where it reached in 2000, Basu will be regarded as one of the most spectacular non-achievers in recent times. He inherited a crumbling edifice and bequeathed a similar structure to his predecessor. He merely prevented the roof from caving in.

Maybe Basu’s exalted status is a reflection of the Bengali distaste for both achievement and change. Basu and Bengal were made for each other.


Anonymous said...

These GODFORSAKEN coomrades' well worn harping on " land reforms " bring to my mind what BhumaDevi (Maa Kali take your pick) says:-

" Have I not seen multitudinous thighslappers crowing thislandismine thatbelongstoyou mememymy , narcissistic moustachetwirlers crowning themselves as superachievers & Relentlessly pulverizing them (Jesus Christ's ashes to ashes ; dust to dust) & Eternally Remaining Victorious:))".

The egregiously galling discrepancies between their thought & deed , nonalignment between cadaverous vows & their chimerical execution...sigh....

Am reminded of what those who queue up for blood/urine/stool testing in swanky diagnostic clinics answer on queried :-

" khaali paete aachaen tho "( Hope you are on empty stomach)?

" Ekshobaar , maatro chaar porotaa aar aek gilaash dhoodh khaeyechi " ( ofcourse fasting; had a measly 4 parathas washed down with milk).

Anonymous said...

>>He inherited a crumbling edifice and bequeathed a similar structure to his predecessor...

Swapan da...shouldn't it be "bequeathed a similar structure to his successor"?

Anonymous said...

The Bengali intellectual is a Raj construct.

Anonymous said...

"Bhadralok Intellectual"
definition: A person who does not have a single orginial idea or insight of his own, reads a lot of non-Indian (mostly white European) literature, try to pass foreigner's ideas as his own.

Amitabha Ghosh said...

Do not forget that he was successful in destroying education and healthcare. The exodus of so many of our generation is an example of that.
And the only image I can gather from JB's rule, is that of rampant hypocrisy.

Anonymous said...

You are very kind. He had his milder, more acceptable side to be sure, but he presided over a vicious political machine, which at its height created mayhem and murder on a massive scale. Surely that wasn't their mandate. I know that no one is clean or blameless in politics, but CPM goondagardi was pretty special, and it's taken a woman (you should be happy!) to show them and their methods the door -- hopefully! I happen to like CPM wallas for their social concerns and often their self-lessness (not all, though) but there's a lot unacceptable, including political games vis-a-vis China.

Ramdas said...

Dear Mr. Dasgupta, my name is Ramdas Menon. I lived in Calcutta from 1965 - 95, and therefore endured 18 years of Jyoti babu's Endless Night. I have written an essay which I'd like to send you. A vastly diluted version is appended below:

We who grew up as children in Jyoti’s Bengal called him Jyoti “The Candlelight” Basu because we don’t remember using electric lights during the endless night of his misrule. I endured 18 years before I escaped.
I remember the 14 hr power cuts that he inflicted while he sat in air conditioned comfort and swilled Black Label on the rocks. When asked in the late 60-s why West Bengal (it had not yet become Waste) was not investing more in the power sector, he famously replied "What shall we do with more power, eat it?" That man destroyed our childhood. There was not a single day when we could sit or study or sleep in peace.
Factories were under 24X7 lockouts, unemployment was rampant, and starvation levels rose faster than the hemlines of Kingfisher’s air hostesses. Gokhale’s “What Bengal thinks today, India does tomorrow” became Basu’s “What India does today, Bengal ain’t gonna do in my lifetime”.
And yes, I remember the blood curdling violence his goons would unleash at the slightest pretext, in the hallowed tradition of Stalin and Mao. He single handedly destroyed the education system by banning the study of English in government schools while he himself had had the benefit of an English education. Middle Temple, old chap, now pass the scotch. And don't forget the ice.
He did not mind his grand children attending the American school in Calcutta though! West Bengal degenerated gradually from disorder to chaos, and thence into total pandemonium.
He craved power like ND Tiwari craved nubile women. His Doddering Highness was forever ready to become PM and President, but his comrades (thankfully) prevented him. And he was churlish enough to say that this was a "historic blunder".
Jyoti babu's greatest contribution however was to keep the communal passions under control - within about 12 hr of Mrs. Gandhi's assassination, he had the anti Sikh sentiments firmly stamped out. Also, there was no whipping up of casteist sentiments there, which is how middle class South Indians like me managed to get an engineering education virtually free, and that too outside our home state.

Anonymous said...

>>"However, measured against where West Bengal stood in 1977 against where it reached in 2000, Basu will be regarded as one of the most spectacular non-achievers in recent times." ....

Oh yes! For example, our 'Sonar Bangla' (golden West Bengal), the most densely populated state in India, used to boast of 52% of it's population being below poverty line in 1977. when JB left office, it was reduced to 25%. Millions and millions robbed of the gift of poverty... Truly, what a 'non-achiever' !

Anonymous said...

>>"However, measured against where West Bengal stood in 1977 against where it reached in 2000, Basu will be regarded as one of the most spectacular non-achievers in recent times."

I can't agree more! When JB took charge in 1977, our 'Shonar Bangla' (Golden Bengal) used to boast of 52% of it's population being below poverty line. When he left office in 2000, it was already reduced to 25%. For the most densely populated state of India, millions and millions of it's people being robbed off the gift of poverty ... truly, what an under-achievement !

Anonymous said...

Maintaining the Status Quo - I think that is Basu's legacy. Someone who walked the streets of Calcutta in 1977 might not have found much change when they looked at the face of Calcutta in 2000 when Basu stepped down. It still astounds me as to why the Bengalis, who were the famed elite in the freedom struggle, and subsequent generations got attracted to Communism like a bug to a bug zapper and maintained a non-course or state of inertia ever since. Political alternatives in WB are not encouraging either. However, I am hopeful of a comeback of the Bengali elite (Now that Basu is gone, the curse of the status quo is perhaps easy to shake off).


Anonymous said...

The Goddamned andhakar coomrades' loadshedding ruined my life in many ways.

The congenitally lecherous gropers around (very much including close relatives in tandem with stranger pedestrians & commuters in crowded buses) turned riotous with glee and gusto.

Soon after my tragicomic charade called " wedding " , I would bathe on Wednesdays alone ( with water bought & stored ofcourse cockroaches to bandicoots scurrying about) before dawn to avail myself of a short bout of electricity.

This unleashed terror of a totally different kind from my inlaws eclipsing basus. They screamed I was a witch/tantric to bathe before sunrise as it is allowed only on Deevali. Very much approved by my terrorist husband & tortured.

I had attempted to set myself on fire once. That is a different story.

Intelligent Bengali Hindu,dumb India said...

Nice article but still India has not produced any single Nobel laureate from India while Kolkata is the home of 6 of them.In communist era we lost one Nobel laureate Subhas Mukhopadya who created world's most sophisticated test tube baby in 1978 which was awarded Nobel in 2010 but he had to commit suicide in 1981 thanks to his peer and goverment of India/Bengal.

But still today 2% Bengali Hindu in abroad routinely outperforming rest of those 98% Indian.

Read this blog in detail-Indian/Chinese IQ puzzle_John Jay Ray
just go through the comments from 700-905 and u will find the difference.