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In Memory of Jyoti Babu!

by Sukla Sen, 17 January 2010

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The news came in the early afternoon. A friend had rung up. My TV is out of operation for quite a while. In the evening, another friend rung up to talk of.

It was a long and no doubt a distinguished career in the conventional sense of the term. He was by far the longest-serving Chief Minister in India. Only Gegong Apang of Arunnachal Pradesh has a somewhat comparable record. But then, Arunachal is not counted amongst the major states of India.
In 1996, his name was proposed as the Indian Prime Minister by the combined anti-Congress - anti-BJP opposition and forcefully pursued. To the horror of many - just not the foes, but also friends. In fact, after an intense tussle, the Party, of which he was the Polit Buro (the highest rung of leadership) member rejected the proposal, despite the spirited bid by the then General Secretary of the Party and also Basu himself being clearly in favour. As a disciplined party soldier, he abided by the decision. But that could not stop him from publicly calling it a "historic blunder". Only a Jyoti Babu, not Comrade Basu, could go unpunished after chiding the party in public.

No other leader from the Left came anywhere remotely close to that. Only Tridib Chaudhuri, of the Revolutionary Socialist Party - a far smaller leftwing outfit, had been the combined opposition’s Presidential candidate against the ruling Congress in the year 1974. But that was for all intent and purpose a symbolic fight. Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed would win hands down.

Not that he was loved by all, no human is that fortunate. But he definitely commanded widespread respect and also elicited some degree of awe.
Born with a silver spoon in his mouth, so to say, grew up to become a Communist. While in Britain in late thirties - the colonial ruler of India in those days, studying to become a Barrister. As is the case with his many illustrious senior and junior comrades did. Not too uncommon in those days. The famous advocate Snehangshu Kanta Acharya, who would later become the Advocate general of West Bengal, was understandably very close to him, sharing a broadly similar aristocratic family roots and personal inclinations, in those days and also for long years thereafter. Not too many would remember him now though..
Basu, to be sure, had also intimately engaged with the labour movement, at least during his initial years. Was just not confined to parliamentary politics. And led historic popular agitations like the campaign against Bengal-Bihar merger, against one paisa tram fare rise etc.. (Not too many would remember now though.)

Jyoti Babu, as he was widely known - not Jyoti Da by any stretch nor even Comrade Basu - had his own distinctive air of aloof dignity tinged with evident haughtiness. That came with his aristocratic family roots, privileged foreign education, communist (presumably some superior) ideology, and of course Benglainess.

That was perhaps during the second United Front regime in West Bengal, which had assumed power in West Bengal. Those were the days of turmoil - both in the agrarian sector, and also in the cities. Physical bloody fights among the partners of the ruling coalition led by Ajoy Mukhopadhyay of the Bangla Congress was the norm of the day. The CPIM was the second most important constituent and Jyoti Basu was the Home Minister and the Dy. Chief Minister. Bloody clashes between the cadres of the two parties in the countryside were too frequent. And also verbal duel between the leaders. As the things turned particularly sour, Jyoti Babu held a press conference to narrate an alleged incident of atrocities perpetrated by the Bangla Congess men. He’d normally not get involved in such murky business. In this particular event a widow was reportedly assaulted and tortured, to which Basu did refer. A journalist, with mischief on mind, asked him to "elaborate" the "torture" bit. Basu was visibly disgusted. He retorted back that he has already that a widow has been assaulted and tortured. The persistent journalist refusing to give up explained that the other day Sushil Dhara, the second senior most leader of the Bangla Congress, and the Industries Minister (if my memory serves me right), had given an elaborate description of the torture inflicted by the CPM cadres on some women. the quintessential Jyoti Babu with unconcealed contempt shot back: I cannot go down to the level of Sushil Dhara!

A comparable example that comes to my mind would take place about a decade later.

In 1977, after the Janata Party government came to power, at the end of the Emergency, it dismissed the state governments run by the Congress. In the process, in West Bengal the Left Front led by the CPIM came to power. Dr. Ashok Mitra, at that time a close friend of Basu, now the Chief Minister, became the Finance Minister. The Sunday was quite a popular magazine in those days, edited by M J Akbar. Sometime later, on its last page, it carried an interview of Dr. Mitra, an eminent economist in his own right. The interviewer, at one point, asked him whether the economic philosophy of Morarji Desai, the Prime Minister, known for his conservative vies, is somewhat akin to that of Milton Friedman. Dr. Mitra curtly replied (I imagine I still remember): Why bother about Friedman? He has never heard of his name. (Just think of it! Morarji Bhai is the Prime Minister of the country, and Dr. Mitra is the Finance Minister of a constituent state!)
That demonstrative intellectual arrogance (permeated with moral courage), I guess, would not be too commonplace elsewhere.

Jyoti Babu, despite being the best known leader of the CPIM towards which the Bengali upper middle class had a distinct animus, came to get identified with Bengali subnationalism and, even if somewhat strangely, struck a chord with the Bengali middle class. Though not exactly comparable, even then somewhat resembling Subhas Bose, a much taller figure and having a strong pan-national appeal cutting across regional divides. Basu is obviously far more parochial in terms of his appeal as compared to Bose. The only other two political figures whose names, in this context, come to mind are C R Das, a mentor of Bose, and subsequently Dr. B C Roy, the Chief Minister of West Bengal in its early independent years. He reportedly had a special soft corner for Basu despite political rivalries.

Ninety-five years is no short span. So Basu could do a lot and saw a lot.
If the CPIM in West Bengal had peaked under the (somewhat tension ridden) joint stewardship of his and significantly lesser known, but perhaps even more powerful, Pramod Dasgupta (or PDG); he lived long enough to see the beginning of the dramatic decline of the party that he had nurtured for far too long.

Sukla Sen

17 01 10