Jyoti Basu, now an octogenarian, is a rare kind of political leader and a rare kind of man. His accomplishments in public life are well known, even if (in the absence of a proper biography) his personal history is known to a relatively small circle. He is way and ahead the longest serving Chief Minister independent India has had. The State of Bengal, under his stewardship, offers a model of political stability and guided progressive change which has few parallels in the imperfect federal arrangement that is political India. If there are weaknesses and failings in the post-1977 performance in office, no one is more conscious of these than the man at the helm (as you find out quickly when you interview him, or talk to him informally).
In fact, as has been pointed out in the national press, the Left Front experience constitutes something of a world record. No communist-led government in any other part of the world has won such a succession of electoral victories . . . and how ! ... over such a long period in a pluralistic political system. The Left Front has managed to maintain a better than three fourths majority of seats in all the four Assembly elections held from 1977, with the CPI(M) by itself winning an absolute majority every time. last time, in May 1991, the margins of victory were greater than ever before, the geographicxl sweep and spread overpowering.
Prior to the United Front experiments (of the late 1960s) which prepared the ground for the Left Front era, Jyoti Basu had worked long years in the trade union movement and as a Communist party organiser. When he returned from England as a barrister-at-law, it was not in the legal field that he made a mark. It was as a Communist activist and organiser and as a trade union builder. As a student in England, he had embraced Marxism and it was the Communist movement - its twists and turns, its triumphs and failures and, above all, its indisputable relevance to India's massive problems - that would be his future.
Suffice it to say that long years ago, the young man made a mark in the undivided party by dint of his capabilities, the sincerity of his commitment to the cause of the working class and working people, his organising and persuasive skills, the breadth and sophistication of his outlook, the force and attractiveness of his personality, his style of work that, even on first appearance, marked him out of the ordinary. As he matured in a movement which witnessed a number of differences and internal struggles, his straightforwardness, clarity, cleanness and team spirit were highly valued.
He acquired the reputation of being a unifier, a 'moderate' (to borrow the language of the press), one who tried to keep all his comrades together. It was also held or alleged widely that he was imbued with 'charisma' (whatever that means; actually it seems a lazy way of saying that a person has a set of qualities and effects that impress, inspire and move those around). When there was no alternative to a split in the Communist movement, Jyoti Basu chose, calmly, clearly and decisively, the road that has a revolutionary future. Which is to say that in the mid-1960s he became a founder leader of the CPI(M). Along with E.M.S. Namboodiripad and Harkishen Surjeet, the present general secretary, he is the· Po lit Bureau member who represents the second generation communist experience in India. Belonging to a fraternity of Communist giants the majority of whom are gone ( A. K. Gopalan, Pramode Dasgupta, P. Sundarayya, P. Ramamurthi, B. T. Ranadive, M. Basavapunniah), he embodies continuity at the top. It is continuity with a phase (if you like) of shining idealism and innocence.
The world has changed a great deal since this second generation of Indian Communists were drawn by the freedom struggle and the revolutionary cause. In terms of sheer quality, ideological and political as well as personal, and moral stature, it is unlikely that this generation will be bettered.
Jyoti Basu as a leader and administrator is reputed for the clarity of his vision, for his gift of focussing on central issues and tasks, for his brisk, laidback practicality. Sometimes, he is miscalled a 'pragmatist' a label (employed admiringly in some quarters) which he amusedly but emphatically rejects. (They're saying we are pragmatists, he remarked to me in an interview for Frontline in early 1995, ((Because Jyoti Basu is a pragmatist." I said, ((I'm not a pragmatist. I'm a Marxist".'
Often he sounds disarmingly simple, especially' in interviews. From time to time, this trait has been mistaken or rather deliberately misinterpreted, by both ultra-left, dogmatists and anti-Comtnunistjournalists, as a lack of ideological and political depth. What it is essentially is a genius for cutting through confusion, obfuscation, casuistry and cant. His neat, ordered and nimble mind, and the habits and style acquired over more than half a century of revolutionary work (where straightforwardness with the masses was highly valued) always work against the Muddle.
An example : he never tries of countering the misapprehension or distortion put out in the press about character of the left Front experiment he heads in West Bengal. It is not a socialist economy and system operating here. (We have not made tall promises,' he pointed out to me. Whatever we can do, we have told them. One thing we cannot do : that is, bring about fundamental changes. Because we are not a republic of West Bengal! We are a part of India' where capitalism and landlordism are the government realities.
In this perspective, the Left Front, and the CPI(M) which leads it work against tough odds. They work within the harsh constratints of the system to advance the interests of the working people, to provide relief to them, and to educate them on what is and is not feasible. They work to uphold the cause of democracy, secularism and socialism, which give the Left Front its defining orientation.
What they can do, and have been doing very effectively, is to (bring about such reforms by which prople will feel that somebody is looking at them ... and that we are trying to do out best. Even if we don't succeed, we take the people into confidence and tell them why we have not succeeded in certain spheres and that they should understand. '
The Left Front will always look for opportunities within the system to gain advantages for the State and its people in the socio-economic, industrial, agricultural, scientific, cultural and indeed political fields. Thus, the Left Front's new industrial and economic policies express a dual reality.
They are opposed to the Centre's economic liberalisation and globalisation policies on the grounds that they
(a) weaken or erode sovereignty,
(b) are anti-people,
(c) retard rather than stimulate growth impulses in the economy, and
(d) militate in several ways (for example, in terms of Central investment) against the States in general and West Bengal in particular.
At the same time, West Bengal must take 'the fullest advantage' of the space and opportunities available today in the new policy environment. Those who cannot appreciate this duality in the situation will always find themselves inside the Muddle, unable to see clearly and grasp the contradictory dynamics in the situation.
Given the remarkable turnround in the power situation brought about by an inspired policy intervention plus an extraordinarily brilliant scientist Power Minister leading from the front, and given the promotional thrust of the new State policies, there are signs of a major industrial resurgence and upswing in West Bengal. 'People who never talked to us before', the Chief Minister pointed, 'they are talking to us .. . Now with freight equalisation ... with licensing done away with in many industries, we have to provide the infrastructure. We don't have to depend on Delhi. That is why people are coming to us.'