The News International, January 23, 2010

by Praful Bidwai

Basu was not just a major Left leader in a country with the world's biggest Communist party outside China. He participated in numerous processes which shaped politics, including trade union and peasant movements, radicalisation of the intelligentsia, contestations between social-group identities, and crystallisation of the party system.

Unlike other distinguished communist leaders S A Dange, E M S Namboodiripad, P C Joshi, B T Ranadive, Gangadhar Adhikari, P Sundarayya and A K Gopalan Basu was neither a theoretician nor a mass leader. Nor was he an organisation man such as Harkishan Singh Surjeet, the last general secretary of the Communist Party (Marxist), or Pramode Dasgupta, who built and controlled the CPM party machine in West Bengal. Basu chose to concentrate on his greatest strengths -- electoral politics, administration and governance.

Basu was a party pragmatist with a managerial style. He worked on the public side of the CPM and built successful election-oriented social coalitions. He was chief minister of West Bengal a state with 80 million people continuously for 23 years. This is a world record. Basu could have stayed on as chief minister beyond 2000 if he wanted to.

Basu was a maverick in many ways. When the undivided Communist Party split in 1964, he was the only individual from a group of privileged European-educated young communists who went with the CPM. All others, including Adhikari, Indrajeet Gupta, Hiren Mukherjee and Nikhil Chakravartty, stayed with the CPI, as did most party intellectuals.

More significantly, Basu unquestioningly accepted the CPM's organisational hegemony. He was an unbending party loyalist, who believed in orthodox forms of discipline and "democratic centralism" -- based on concentric circles of authority within the party, and the norm that party members must unquestioningly follow a decision taken after internal debate.

In 1996, Basu famously became "the best prime minister India never had." The United Front unanimously offered the position to him. But the CPM central committee rejected the offer. The decision was driven by a narrow control-based consideration: with its 51 MPs, the Left wouldn't be able to dominate the Front. But the Left would have gained much advantage, including prestige and mainstream acceptance, with Basu as prime minister. This would probably have delayed or prevented the BJP's rise to national power in 1998. Ironically, those in the CPM who opposed Basu's candidature the most later backed Mayawati as prime minister!

Basu was a pragmatist par excellence. On any issue, he would choose the most practical and least radical of the options made available by the CPM. This would satisfy both privileged industrialists whom his party has been wooing for investment and poor people, among whom it had its roots. In land reform in West Bengal, the Left avoided a radical transfer of ownership to the tiller and the landless -- unlike in Kerala in the 1950s. Its Operation Barga registered tenants and gave them a 75-percent harvest share and tenure security.

In his first term as chief minister, Jyoti Basu said: "Let the capitalists understand us. We shall also try to understand their point of view." No wonder he developed a close rapport with several industrial magnates, including Dhirubhai Ambani, Ratan Tata and R P Goenka. He favoured multinational takeovers of some of Bengal's sick industrial units and wanted the West Bengal Electronics Development Corporation to form a joint venture with Philips.

Basu's upper-class, upper-caste Bhadralok identity endeared him greatly to Bengal's elite. But Basu's politics largely excluded Dalits, Adivasis and OBCs and even Muslims, who form one-fourth of the state's population from governance and political representation. In this respect, and in social development indicators, West Bengal lags behind many other states. The rate of decline in its rural poverty has halved since 1994.

Worse, according to the National Sample Survey, "the percentage of rural households not getting enough food every day in some months of the year" is highest in West Bengal (10.6 per cent), worse than in Orissa (4.8). West Bengal has more than 900,600 school dropouts in the 6-14 age group, higher than Bihar's nearly 700,000. Of India's 24 districts which have more than 50,000 out-of-school children, nine are in West Bengal.

The official Human Development Report (2004) admits that spending on and access to health services have stagnated. Some indicators immunisation, antenatal care, women's nutrition, and doctors and hospital beds per 100,000 people are below the national average. West Bengal has not opened a single new primary-health centre in a decade. West Bengal has the lowest rate of generating work under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act -- 14 person-days per poor family. The national average is 43. (The promise was 100.)

India's worst recent food riots have occurred in West Bengal especially in poor districts like Purulia, Bankura and Birbhum when starving people raided the storehouses of dishonest ration-shop owners, all CPM members. Purulia is one of India's poorest districts -- with 78 percent of its population below the poverty line. More than two-fifths of West Bengal's poor don't have ration cards, which entitle them to subsidised food. Meanwhile, some of the gains of Operation Barga are eroding. Seventeen percent of registered tenants have lost their land and another 27 percent are in insecure possession.

Clearly, the Left Front has failed the poor in numerous ways during its 32 years in power. The rationale of the CPM's tenure in office has eroded. Basu bears a good share of responsibility for this.

Basu, then, is akin to Yasser Arafat, the tallest leader of the movement for an independent Palestinian state, who died in 2004. Arafat put Palestine on the world agenda a great historic contribution but signed the Oslo Peace Accords under Western pressure. These imposed a hideously unjust settlement on his people. Arafat's once-secular and -progressive Fatah has lost its credibility. The Islamicist Hamas won a plurality in a free and fair election. The CPM might similarly lose West Bengal to the Trinamool Congress.

Basu leaves a mixed legacy. The Left Front is still paying the price for its advocacy of "industrialisation at any cost." Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee believes that industrialisation of any kind is progress. Actually, neoliberal corporate-led industrialisation lacks classical capitalism's employment and social-political potential and destroys livelihoods.

Poor people are increasingly alienated from the CPM. If it loses the 2011 West Bengal Assembly elections, Trinamool will unleash unspeakable violence to settle old scores and capture new areas. In Kerala, the Left faces an uphill battle. It was routed in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. A nationally weakened Left could go into serious long-term decline. The Left has grown in India even while communism went into a tailspin globally after the collapse of the USSR. This was a great achievement. Its reversal would be an equally great pity. Luckily, Basu won't be there to see the unravelling and humiliation of the Left.

Finally, Jyoti Basu must be admired for standing by his atheist convictions and donating his body for medical research. Not many show such courage at a time when it's most needed -- amidst the explosion of blind faith, superstition and worship of so-called godmen and every conceivable irrationality in India.

The writer, a former newspaper editor, is a researcher and peace and human-rights activist based in Delhi. Email: prafulbidwai1