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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 10, February 27, 2010

West Bengal: Younger CPM Leaders’ Attitude to Jyoti Basu

Monday 1 March 2010, by Barun Das Gupta

Has the death of the nonagenerian party patriarch, Jyoti Basu, really caused an “irreparable loss” to the CPI-M or created a “void” in the party difficult to fill—as is being talked about in political circles? This writer does not think so. In his twilight years Jyoti Basu had little influence on the younger leaders of the party, whether at the national or State level. Some of them, notably the present Chief Minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, never tried to conceal their contempt for him.

Had they listened to him, the CPI-M leaders would not have embarked on the Singur and Nandigram misadventures in their thoughtless zeal for “industrialising” West Bengal with the help of desi and foreign monopoly capitalists, by forcibly evicting thousands of farmers from fertile fields that yielded three to four crops a year. After the Singur debacle, Basu inquired from Bhattacharjee whether he had consulted the local leaders of the Kisan Sabha (the peasant wing of the party) and obtained their opinion before announcing and going ahead with the small car project of the Tatas. The Chief Minister replied in the negative.

On the eve of last year’s Lok Sabha elections, when the Congress announced its decision to form an electoral alliance with the Trinamul Congress to fight the CPI-M jointly, newsmen asked Basu at the State party office at Alimuddin Street (even then he was capable of visiting the office occasionally) what could be the likely effect of the alliance on the CPI-M’s poll prospects. Basu’s laconic reply was that it would harm the party and result in a loss of seats. Even in his mid-nineties, Basu could feel the pulse of the people far better than any of the new crop of leaders, thirty to forty years younger than him. He had the rich experience of long years of grassroots level mass work which very few of the present leaders can claim to have. They were furious at Basu’s plain-speaking. And so were the rank-and-file comrades. Their private reaction was: this ‘old fogey’ (in inelegant Bengali, buro bham) has further queered the already queer pitch for the poll battle.

In fact, Basu’s removal from Chief Ministership in 2000 was an act of trickery by the young leaders, chief among them was the then State party Secretary, the late Anil Biswas. True, Basu had, on occasions, said he was getting old and wanted to retire from the office of Chief Minister, but he was not really intent on quitting immediately. But one fine afternoon, Anil Biswas announced to the press that deferring to Basu’s wishes, the party had decided to relieve him of the burden of office. Jyoti Basu was taken aback by this coup de grace delivered by the younger leaders who had become impatient to see Buddhadeb mount the CM’s throne, but he could do little about it. He had to step down without a murmur of protest. He had by then become an expendable commodity for the party and the party did “expend” him quite unceremoniously. Henceforth he had only use for the party: it would exploit his name and his old charisma whenever needed—whether for electoral propaganda or for riding out a political storm.

With Basu thrown out, Buddhadeb started his innings. He steadily alienated his party and his government from the people. He also alienated the other constituents of the Left Front and what is more, provoked the people into building active resistance against the oppression of his armed party cadre who often took active help of the police. This was a new phenomenon in the the three-decade-long rule of the Left Front in Bengal. The LF constituents, too, became increasingly critical—and vocal in their criticism —of the CPI-M. The tenor of their complaint was that the CM was riding roughshod over them, never consulted them, and took important decisions all by himself without raising the issues in Cabinet meetings or even informally discussing with them. Several times, senior Ministers like the CPI’s Nandagopal Bhattacharyya or the RSP’s Kshiti Goswami had heated exchanges with the CM in Cabinet meetings.

Also, for the first time, senior CPI-M leaders like Biman Bose, Benoy Konar, Shyamal Chakravarty and others started criticising Opposition leaders, especially Mamata Banerjee, by name and in intemperate language which often turned obscene and vulgar. This had never happened before. Basu did sometimes criticise leaders of other parties of the Left Front but his language was never undignified, far less offensive or indecent. As the Singur and Nandigram crises developed, Bhattacharjee started branding people as amra (we, the CPI-M people) and ora (they, those in Opposition or those not with the party), forgetting that as Chief Minister of the State he could not discriminate between his party supporters and opponents. Basu had never allowed himself to be seen as such a blatantly partisan leader.

The result was that the party’s increasing alienation from the people started showing in the election results—from those of local clubs to the governing bodies of schools and colleges; from the panchayats and civic bodies to the Assembly by-elections and finally in last year’s Lok Sabha polls. The CPI-M had kept these bodies under its control from 30 to 40 years, never allowing any Opposition candidate even to file his nomination paper. At the same time, Opposition parties, especially the Trinamul Congress, started setting up party units in localities till then known as “Red bastions” or CPI-M citadels. People were getting more and more emboldened to come out openly against the ruling party and its cadre-raj.

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Even in his totally secluded life at Indira Bhavan in the Salt Lake area of the city, with falling eyesight and hearing, Basu followed the course of events with uncanny perception. He would, from time to time, call the Chief Minister or the State party Secretary who is also the Chairman of the Left Front and tell them what he felt about the political developments and what he thought needed to be done. He was listened to respectfully but neither the administrative chief nor the party chief would change course.

The party’s downhill journey continued. Occasionally, both would pontificate, asking party workers to be polite in their behaviour with the people, listen sympathetically to people’s grievances and live a transparent life. From time to time statements would be made announcing the party’s resolve to root out corruption. But that was that. The comrades knew the statements were being made for form’s sake because in the daily life of their leaders there was no reflection of what they were preaching their followers to do. In fact, there is no possibility of the party getting out of the trap that long years and decades of power have got it into, before the 2011 Assembly polls. The party knows what it is heading for—loss of power—but is helpless to do anything.

In his dying days, Basu’s disillusionment with the young and inexperienced leaders of his party and his frustration with the state of things would often come out in his conversation with dignitaries and politicians of other parties. For example, when Gopal Krishna Gandhi called on Basu to bid farewell to him after the completion of his term as Governor (he had turned down all requests to accept a second term), Basu made a cryptic comment: “I had no problems with you.” What he said is significant not because of what he actually said but because what he left unsaid. Read between the lines and you’ll know it. Similarly, once when Mamata Banerjee visited him (some time before his last illness), he told the Opposition leader: “Once we used to organise peasant struggles. Now you are doing so.”

It is not that Basu’s own record as Chief Minister is blameless or faultless. Far from it. But all said and done, he was far above the present leaders—in Kolkata as well as Delhi—who are incapable of understanding and responding to people’s moods and be realistic enough to admit mistakes and retrace their steps in time. They have squandered in just three years, from January 2007 till now, the immense fund of goodwill and sympathy that the Left in Bengal had created through sustained hard work and by organising toiling people’s struggles since Independence.

Do the present leaders of the CPI-M sincerely believe that Basu’s passing away is really a loss, or do they think it has freed the party from the liability of a leader who had become an anchronism from the point of view of their brand of Marxism but who could not be publicly disowned as long as he was alive?

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