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India: Members of the Bengal Left once added lustre to the Rajya Sabha

16 August 2017

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The Telegraph, August 12, 2017

A new absence

- Members of the Bengal Left once added lustre to the Rajya Sabha

[by] Sunanda K. Datta-Ray

Jyoti Basu with Bhupesh Gupta, 1958

Bhaskar Mitter, the first Indian chairman of Andrew Yule who died in late May, was surprised when Bhupesh Gupta frowned on Jyoti Basu drinking a glass of beer. He told me more than 60 years later that no sooner had Basu left the lunch he had hosted in London in the late 1930s when all three were reading for the Bar than Gupta exploded in his East Bengal - Bangal - dialect, "It’s all right for you, you’re Sir B.L. Mitter’s son, but what business has that Jyoti to guzzle beer?" That disapproval was to shape the austere integrity of a Rajya Sabha stalwart who exposed the pampered M.O. Mathai’s shenanigans and forced Jawaharlal Nehru to take action against Haridas Mundhra.

The fiasco of Gujarat’s Rajya Sabha election (dominated by power brokers and publicists) and the absence of a single representative of Bengal’s Left in the Upper House over which the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Muppavarapu Venkaiah Naidu will preside brings Gupta to mind. He was the Rajya Sabha’s longest serving member. Elected to the first House in 1952 and a member till he died (appropriately enough in Moscow) in 1981, he was specially felicitated when the House celebrated its 100th session and 25th anniversary in 1977. Other Rajya Sabha members from Bengal sustained the tradition of public service, among them, Gurudas Dasgupta with his sharp eye for corporate misdemeanour, the Marxist economist, Biplab Dasgupta, Bharati Ray, academic and pro vice-chancellor, and from a different walk of life, the eminent film-maker, Mrinal Sen. They were not failed activists who had to be smuggled into the parliamentary pipeline. Nor were they party hacks to be rewarded. They were people of quality and ability who added lustre to the Rajya Sabha. Sitaram Yechury is active and articulate even if he is no more Bengali than Manmohan Singh is Assamese.

The absence of such members on the 70th anniversary of Independence speaks both of Bengal’s dwindling national importance and the Left’s decline. The leavening that the Bengali Left provided is especially needed at a time when the defection of Congress and Trinamul Congress legislators in Gujarat and Tripura underlines the message of Manipur, Goa and Bihar. It’s the end of history with no question of the question mark in Francis Fukuyama’s original essay. But it’s a different history. In 1990, the disintegration of the Soviet Union may have presaged the universal triumph of Western capitalist democracy as the ultimate form of government. In 2017, the relentless juggernaut of a one-party empire is determined to dominate the "darkling plain swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, where ignorant armies clash by night". The conqueror brooks no confusion, permits no struggle and allows only flight. Surrender prevents any clash of arms in the stricken night. The only ignorant army is that of an all-pervasive authoritarianism.

This is not a lament for a mythic dictatorship of the proletariat that could never have been. Witness the attacks on Hamid Ansari, it’s concern for diversity being steamrollered out of existence, and at the rise of politicized religion that nurtures the seeds of radical, missionary and retrograde movements of which ghar wapsi and gau rakshaks are the sinister advance guard. Not that all leftist politicians are superior to their counterparts in other parties. They are often guilty of more venal crimes than limiting protest to just shaking their dhotis, as the expelled Marxist firebrand, Prasenjit Bose, lamented. Eric Hobsbawm soon realized that the young Indian communists he encountered in England were "the elite of the elites of the ’native’ colonial populations". The Bengal cadre of those days included Jyoti Basu who became in the communist movement what a covenanted assistant was in the world of managing agencies. Snehangshu Kanta Acharya slipped smoothly back into the luxuries of inherited feudalism. Arun Bose’s clipped Cambridge accent ensured immediate nomination to the Communist Party of India’s central committee while he was still in his twenties. Renu Chakravorty treated Hobsbawn to Christmas dinner in Calcutta with ham and turkey from the Calcutta Club (where her cousin was secretary), followed by biryani, and then plum pudding, also from the club.

Black sheep can come in many guises. The voluble Bratin Sengupta seemed such an unlikely young Marxist in the Rajya Sabha that I wasn’t surprised to learn he had joined the Bharatiya Janata Party. But his boast of moving "from a regional party to a national one" would be hotly contested by those who still regard Marxism as an international force. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) has another problem child in the flamboyant 39-year-old Ritabrata Banerjee, also in the Rajya Sabha, whose "anti-party activities" and "moral turpitude" include flaunting a Mont Blanc pen and Apple watch. It sounds like a replay of Ninotchka, a 1939 MGM film starring the legendary Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas and produced and directed by Ernst Lubitsch in which a stern Soviet commissar sent to Paris to raise funds for the revolution betrays the cause for an irresistibly elegant hat.

Bhupesh Gupta, too, was criticized for being soft on Indira Gandhi’s Congress. But another Gupta - Indrajit - who determinedly renounced his birthright of even greater privilege would have said that although technically also a member of what Bengalis used to call the "barristocracy", Bhupesh babu was not a "gentleman of privilege, but a gentleman of the people". The bachelor politician was a taciturn man in slippers, khadi and hearing aid whom I remember in Jolly Mohan Kaul’s modest two-room flat near Park Circus in Calcutta which the CPI had designated a "commune". Probably one of the last acts of Jolly’s wife, the redoubtable Manikuntala Sen, as a CPI member was to demonstrate the precedence of friendship over politics and use her vote to ensure Gupta remained a Rajya Sabha member. They don’t make them like that any more. E.M. Forster would have admired her priorities.

The BJP-dominated National Democratic Alliance is still in a minority in the Rajya Sabha but will soon manage the majority for which it hankers. That will be at the cost of popular confidence inspired by the critical and investigative parliamentarianism in which some Bengal politicians excelled. Whether or not the Left is "the victim of a conspiracy" as the CPI(M)’s Sujan Chakraborty believes, the Election Commission does seem to have rejected Calcutta’s former mayor, Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya, who had a run-in with Trinamul Congress workers only four months ago, on what looks like flimsy procedural grounds. It’s worth mentioning as we edge towards political conformism and repressive uniformity that apart from the failure of ideology, the Left is in bad odour because aspiring Indians are anxious to genuflect at the altar of the rising sun which happens to be saffron.

A Rajya Sabha without any representative of the Left parties from Bengal for the first time ever gives new meaning to Gopal Krishna Gokhale’s famous "What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow". The Lok Sabha can be next. If Bengal dispenses with the Left today, the rest of the country may do so tomorrow. Men like Bhupesh Gupta would not have had much respect for such regimentation. He told S.A. Dange once, "You may be the chairman of the party, but I won’t allow you to interfere in the matters pertaining to parliamentary affairs. I will stick to principles and ideals according to my conscience." Perhaps he did. Principles don’t always make for popularity. Ashok Mitra recounts flying to Delhi with Jyoti Basu when he noticed Bhupesh Gupta across the aisle. He mentioned this to the chief minister who chose to ignore Gupta. Naturally, Mitra did so too. Later, another CPI leader told Mitra that Gupta "had spoken to him in great sorrow, ’Neither Jyoti Basu or Ashok Mitra cared to greet me’". Basu may not have forgiven Gupta’s indignation over that glass of beer.


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