The Jyoti Basu difference and legacy

It is no surprise that a major section of the Indian press and media has treated the self-determined retirement from office of one of the most illustrious political leaders and statesmen India has produced in the past century with ill-concealed bad grace and dismissivism ("a long innings with quite a low score," and so on), if not hostility. This attitude is an expression of the widespread ideological tendency of anti-Communism and anti-progressivism rather than a reflection of anything Jyoti Basu might have done or failed to do as the longest-serving Chief Minister of independent India and as a major national political figure.

Put bluntly, the negative attitude of much of the media has reflected a crude prejudice against the ideology, politics and mov ement of the Left of which Basu has been, for decades, the best-known national symbol, administrator, and popular leader. Even the high-minded act of bowing out on account of age and in the face of intense pressure to carry on as Chief Minister for at le ast a while longer - a rare moral example of self-abnegation in mainstream Indian politics - has not been given its due in the media or, for that matter, in the public space.

A byword for intellectual, political and personal integrity and for a straightforward but cool and imperturbable style in politics, Basu made a profound, long-term difference to the large, populous and strategically important State that has always been h is first priority and commanded his best effort. However, those who remember him mainly as Chief Minister of West Bengal between 1977 and 2000 are likely to underestimate his long experience in the crucible of struggle: as a trade union organiser, as a popular agitator, and as a revolutionary fighter - starting, as was typical for his generation, as a freedom fighter and courageously facing and overcoming state-sponsored repression and intolerance in independent India as well. They are likely also to un derestimate the inner resources of one of the most attractive and gifted Opposition political figures India, or indeed any country, has seen over the past half century.

Some others in the Communist party and movement - most importantly, an E.M.S. Namboodiripad, a B.T. Ranadive, an M. Basavapunniah - have distinguished themselves as exponents and developers of Marxist theory. Some others - most importantly, a P. Sundaray ya, a Promode Dasgupta, a Harkishan Singh Surjeet - have contributed specially to party-building and organisational affairs. Basu's metier lay in another domain - where theory, vision, polemic, and the ideological characteristics and organisationa l resources of a revolutionary movement encounter the challenge of working with the masses and winning them over. Basu's genius lay in this interesting and quite difficult interface where many an ideal, many a leader, and many a political ambition has fa iled to achieve notable success.

It will take some time for his unprecedented long innings as Chief Minister of West Bengal to be evaluated objectively and in its various facets, and to be understood for the quantitative and qualitative difference it has been able to make. Suffice it to mention some of the major achievements.
In the first place, Left Front rule has been responsible for momentous changes in the West Bengal countryside. Over the 23 years of Basu's helmsmanship, it implemented a basic land reform, established India's first comprehensive system of democratic dece ntralisation, and extended rural electrification and irrigation.

Agricultural production came out of the impasse in which it had been trapped for decades before Left rule, and in the 1980s and 1990s West Bengal showed the highest rates of agricultural gr owth among the 17 most populous States of the country. As a consequence of the new institutional changes and agricultural growth, nutrition levels improved and rural poverty declined in the State. In fact, West Bengal, followed by Kerala, has the best re cord among all Indian States with respect to rural poverty reduction over the past two decades.

Secondly, despite the concerted propaganda efforts in the media to give the Basu government a bad name, West Bengal is a living example of democracy at the grassroots. There have been elections to panchayat institutions every five years since 1978, panch ayats have taken on responsibilities that were earlier vested with the district-level bureaucracy, and the divisible outlay for the districts tends to be close to 50 per cent of State Plan outlays. Elected members of panchayats are overwhelmingly from la nd-poor and landless households. The West Bengal experience with local government was the primary impetus for the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Indian Constitution, which made regular elections to local bodies, rural and urban, mandatory in all States.

Thirdly, West Bengal's industrial experience under Left Front rule has been far from the 'wasteland' alleged in supercilious, sneering and motivated media assessments.

The industrial picture in the State has been a complicated and mixed one over the last forty years, with signs of decline and stagnation of traditional industry and problems created for industrial and finance capital by an exceedingly strong trade union movement and working class struggles. The theme of 'flight of capital' has been talked about, but it has been very hard to substantiate, document and study objectively. Since the adoption of a new industrial policy since 1994, the State government has worked hard to attract investors. Some successes have been scored, there have been disap pointments (as with the joint sector giant Haldia petrochemical project), and a complex industrial scenario with bright spots as well as chronic problem areas is unfolding, as is happening in several other States.

But the difference Jyoti Basu has made to politics and society must not be assessed merely, or even mainly, with respect to West Bengal. The limitations of the Left at the national level, especially in Hindi-speaking India, stand out but West Bengal's Le ft Front has been a bulwark of the struggle against Hindutva in Indian politics. The 30-plus MPs from West Bengal have formed the foundation of a coherent and influential Left presence in Parliament.

The Left in Parliament has been able to contribute the most consistent defence of secularism, democracy, federalism and national unity, and the most outspoken and radical critique of the policies of stabilisation and structural adjustment. Take away the Left and saffron would have a much stronger role in na tional politics than it does today, with its mixed bag of opportunist allies. The anti-democratic and disintegrative consequences of such - unmitigated and unmediated - ascendancy of the Hindu Right would be too disturbing and tragic to contemplate