February 12, 2010

Frontline Column: Beyond the Obvious

by Praful Bidwai

Jyoti Basu’s death after a 70 year-long career in politics marks the end of a journey that spanned four different transitions. There was, first, the great epochal change from the stifled and anaemic politics of the colonial period, with its limited-electorate-based competition, to Independence and the early phase of political rule-setting and institution-building, to the crystallisation of vigorous political contestations based on ideological and identity polarisation and popular participation within a democratic framework. Basu was part of each of these phases.

A second transition involved the rise and expansion of the Communist parties through the Freedom Struggle and peasant and working class movements, and the Left’s embrace of parliamentary politics. This has created a distinct and important pole or space within the Indian political spectrum which cannot be ignored.

Equally important was a third transition. The Left won state-level elections beginning with Kerala in the 1950s, and then in West Bengal and Tripura, and acquired a significant legislative presence in some other states—although, regrettably, not in the Hindi belt (except, until recently, in Bihar). By the late 1980s, the Left had increased its national political weight to a point where it could influence government formation and policy-making.

The success of the Indian Left’s social coalition-building for parliamentary elections, coupled with its mass base, allowed it to grow even while Communism suffered a near-collapse in much of the world after the end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. This was of course a remarkable achievement. It became possible because the Left expanded its ambit of activity outside the traditional domain, taking up issues like secularism, foreign policy independence and peace, and because it worked shoulder to shoulder with progressive social movements.

The Left’s evolution along parliamentary lines involved learning to govern, administer and deal with practical and mundane matters even while pushing a progressive agenda such as land reform. Basu was not just an integral part of this process, but its tallest representative or embodiment, who led West Bengal as Chief Minister for an amazing 23 years, setting an international record.

Finally, Basu’s departure marks a specific transition in West Bengal, where the overwhelming dominance of the Left Front, in particular, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), stands threatened after 32 years in power. Although Basu withdrew from active politics several years ago, he was witness to the major change that has occurred over the past decade in the relationship between the Left parties and the industrial working class, peasants and landless agricultural workers, on the one hand, and the middle class, on the other. The convulsions of Singur and Nandigram, which showed the Left’s alienation from its original roots and core support-base among the underprivileged poor, were expressions of this change.

Basu was ever the party pragmatist par excellence, who invested a huge amount of energy into the business of practical politics, conducted within the CPI(M) in clear focus. Yet, he was not an organisation man in the sense that Pramode Dasgupta was in West Bengal or P Sundarayya was in Andhra Pradesh. Dasgupta devoted himself to building up the state party virtually from scratch and tuned it into a giant machine. He knew its cadres and leaders from the village level upwards like the back of his hand. Indeed, he had groomed many of them. He was wholly absorbed in organisational work and had very little public exposure.

Nor was Basu a theoretician in the mould of an EMS Namboodiripad or a BT Ranadive, with a grand vision and analysis of the social and economic factors underlying political trends, on the basis of which to draw up a long-term strategic line of march.

Rather, Basu was an intensely pragmatic political leader who concerned himself primarily with short-term strategies and tactics of immediate relevance to the party. He brought his education, his deep roots in Bengali bhadralok culture and his understanding of the social dynamics of West Bengal to bear upon his work as a political leader and administrator. He had an exceptionally good eye for able civil servants and chose some of the finest of them to design and implement the three programmes which West Bengal pioneered and for which it was noteworthy for a long time: namely, the Operation Barga land reform, panchayati raj in villages, and Joint Forestry Management, which associated grassroots people’s committees with the work of the Forest Department.

Operation Barga was not as radical as the land reform in Kerala, which gave the landowning poor full ownership rights. But it was one of the world’s great agrarian reforms, which registered nearly 1.5 million sharecroppers and transferred tenancy rights over 451,800 hectares to them by 1994. The rural panchayats created and consolidated the Left Front’s base in villages and has been key to its victory in election after election. JFM was a moderate success till the World Bank got involved in it.

Basu’s universal acceptability and stature was rooted in his political acumen, his open, easy, no-nonsense manner and his ability to communicate with all kinds of people—from international leaders and Indian business magnates, to a broad spectrum of political leaders, to Left party cades and ordinary people. I remember three occasions in the late 1980s, when I was on the same airlines flight with him. When the plane landed and he rose to disembark, all passengers, beginning with industrialists in business class, spontaneously stood up in deference.

So it was no surprise when Basu was offered the Prime Ministership by the United Front in 1996. He was the unquestioned pre-eminent choice. The CPI(M) Central Committee in a majority decision after two meetings decided not to field him—a move which he called “a historic blunder”.

What might have happened to the CPI(M), and more generally, to the Left movement, had he become Prime Minister, remains one of the greatest counterfactuals in India’s political history. The question is not easily answered. The Left parties were the United Front’s single largest constituent, with 51 MPs. The Janata Dal, which eventually nominated HD Deve Gowda, came second, with 44 MPs. The CPI(M)’s view was that the Left Front did not have the full mandate to rule, and could not control the coalition’s programme and policies. The likely impact of such an arrangement on its cadres’ morale was also not easy to assess.

In retrospect, it appears that Basu’s acceptance of the top post might have given the Left more leverage than it came to wield much later by extending external support to the United Progressive Alliance in 2004 until 2008, when the arrangement broke down because of the United States-India nuclear deal. Basu was not happy with the decision to withdraw support in July 2008 on this issue. But the party loyalist that he was, he went along.

There are two other areas where Basu might have contributed substantially more to the Left than he did. If he had relinquished the Chief Ministership of West Bengal earlier than he did and played a more active role in the Left’s national leadership, the Communist movement would have benefited from his political insights and stature. Secondly, had he adopted a proactive advisory role vis-à-vis the Left Front in West Bengal in the past decade, he might have been able to slow down the state’s stagnation and downslide in social indicators, including primary health, education and inclusiveness.

That was not to be. In recent years, West Bengal has become one of India’s laggards in the provision of primary healthcare, employment and education, and has a poor (4 to 5 percent) representation of Muslims in government and police employment in relation to their 25 percent share in the population. Its momentum towards industrialisation has not recovered after the Tatas’ pullout from the Singur project.

Many of the social and political agendas that Jyoti Basu would have liked to see advanced remain unfulfilled. If the Left reinvigorates itself both in West Bengal and nationally and energetically pursues them, it could yet pay a handsome and fitting tribute to this tall leader.