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Comrade Jyoti Basu: An Iconic Figure

By Satya Narayana Sahu | PUBLISHED: 09, Jul 2019, 22:01 pm IST | UPDATED: 16, Oct 2019, 5:38 am IST

Comrade Jyoti Basu: An Iconic Figure Yesterday i.e. on 8th July 2019, the 106th birth anniversary of comrade late Shri Jyoti Basu was celebrated in India. He was an iconic figure of our public life. His assumption of the office of the Chief Minister of West Bengal in 1977 and his continuation in that office for 23 years is as much a tribute to the communist movement of our country as to the resilience of our parliamentary democracy. I would say that his uninterrupted continuation in the office of the Chief Minister of the State is equal in importance with the election of Barack Obama, the first African American, as the President of the USA. As Barack Obama raised hopes of those who had suffered discrimination Shri Jyoti Basu raised hopes among the marginalized and subjected to deprivation in a system which ironically offered hopes to improve their lot. It is for the first time in world history that the communist movement produced the longest serving elected head of a Government with the robust mandate of people. It is extraordinary in every sense of the term.

Truly it is exceedingly difficult for a man wedded to 
communist ideology to succeed in a deeply religious society. It is all the more challenging in a set up where communist ideology is not the flavour of the masses across the length and breadth of our country. Our first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in a conservation with the great French philosopher Andre Malaroux had said that it would be very tough to create a secular State in a religious society. If creation of secular State is difficult in a religious society then one can well imagine hurdles on the way of the sustenance of communist ideology and movement and the success of a communist leader in leading a Government in the constituent unit of our federation.  It is in this context that the success of Jyoti Basu as the chief Minister of West Bengal for 23 years constituted an unprecedented event in the annals of history.

Earlier the illustrious comrade E.M.S.Namboodiripad from 
Kerala became the first ever democratically elected Communist leader in the world and occupied the office of the Chief Minister of the State. Later he went on to assume the role of a theoretician and ideologue of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and received wide acclaim and recognition for his sharp understanding, intellect and interpretation of Marxism in the context of our subcontinent. But what distinguished Shri Jyoti Basu was the sheer scale of success in getting the Marxist-Leninist philosophy and practice rooted on the soil of India and make it workable to win elections with massive support of people and find durable solutions to the problems faced by ordinary citizens of West Bengal. His long tenure and his outstanding stature flowed from his ideological commitments inspiring not only ordinary workers of the communist movement but also many other political leaders from all parts of the country who did not share his ideological posturing and vision.

His rise as one of the tallest mass leaders of our country truly 
signifies the relevance of the pluralistic and accommodative political culture of our country where there is no place for exclusivist worldview and outlook. His accomplishments in managing a coalition of diverse left parties to run a Government right from 1977 to 2000 provided vital lessons for addressing the challenges of a coalition era in Indian politics which witnessed the assault on secularism, decisive end of one party dominance, and emergence of forces for strengthening federalism. Being the exponent and architect of the coalition Government within which coexisted a dominant party and several other small parties with a common social and economic programme, he was considered as a role model for providing such a Government at the national level. He provided political and administrative stability to the State of West Bengal for more than two decades. In the absence of communal riots under his leadership people there had a sense of security. Many of the social and economic policies he followed led to the improvement of living standards in rural areas. It is for these reasons that he was hailed as one of the most effective leaders of modern India.

It is not that his role in providing a durable coalition 
Government was first of its kind. It was done in Kerala in 1967 under the leadership of late Achutha Menon. His Government lasted for six years in putting together different political parties and adopting a common agenda for governance which reached out to people to successfully meet their aspirations and needs. But what stood out Shri Jyoti Basu was his tenure spanning twenty three years and safeguarding the basic values of our Constitution woven around secularism, equality, justice and above all common fund of interests of all our people. 

His ideas and achievements gained more relevance and currency when the communal forces operated the State apparatus resulting in unprecedented attack on our cherished culture of coexistence of Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and all other people following different faiths.I recall the late President of India Shri K.R.Narayanan who while, inaugurating the new complex of the Kerala Legislature paid his tribute to one of the greatest communist leaders of our country late comrade E.M.S. Namboodiripad by saying that he “added a new dimension to parliamentary democracy at once constructive and revolutionary, charging it with the spirit of political militancy and the content of social and economic transformation”. I think what is true of comrade Namboodiripad is true of comrade Jyoti Basu and yet one may add that he went several steps ahead in creatively understanding the relevance of Marxism and communist philosophy in the rapidly globalised world of the twentieth century and twenty first century and grappling with the several crises engulfing the society and world.

Howsoever one may disagree with communist ideology one would certainly salute its proponents for underlining the common interests of people professing diverse faiths and speaking a wide variety of languages. It is well known that the communist ideology is materialistic in content, orientation and outlook. Anchored on dialectal materialism it upholds the interests of those who suffer and face hardships in realizing worth of life within an exploitative system where the means of production is owned by some and where alienation is the defining theme. In going beyond the sectarian outlook and narrow religious identity this ideology brings people to a common platform of shared interests and future.I think Shri Jyoti Basu did it admirably well in the context of West Bengal which is of enormous significance for the whole country and indeed the whole world. 

It was Mahatma Gandhi who during one of his visits to Kerala to enter a temple which was thrown open to the Dalits due to the proclamation of the Queen of Travancore described himself as a philosophical communist discarding the stress laid by the communists on the method of violence and embracing the ideals of justice and equity for all. Later during the early nineteen forties when our country witnessed alarming upsurge of communal forces nattempting to define the identity of people and nation solely in terms of religious identity, he admired the Communists for highlighting the common factors that unite our people together and forge their approach to lead a peaceful and meaningful life. I was struck to see the words of none less than Mahatma Gandhi appreciating communists in upholding the cause of people by going beyond the factors such as religion, language and race. It is revealing to know that comrade Jyoti Basu showed utmost respect to Mahatma Gandhi and held him in high esteem. He disagreed with Rajani Palme Dutt who described Mahatma Gandhi as a bourgeois leader and observed that he was the first man who roused the whole nation. The then Governor of West Bengal Shri Gopal Krishna Gandhi in his article in the Telegraph newspaper on Jyoti Basu under the caption “A Patriarch Remembered” throws light on these facts which project Jyoti Basu as a sensitive leader with a faculty to see beyond the ideology and appreciate the role played by leaders with a different political persuasion.

People are united together by their vital common and 
material interests. Any body who champions those interests earns their respect and admiration.The logic of parliamentary democracy demands that our leaders remain tuned to the common interests of people irrespective of their religious and linguistic affiliations. The articulation of the common approach of all Indians remained the central aspect of all communist leaders and Jyoti Basu as the Chief Minister of West Bengal made it the part and parcel of his strategy for governance and social change. I recall that when I was a student of Ravenshaw College in 1977 there was strident call to ban cow slaughter by enacting a specific law. He came out with his famous declaration that “Cow is not my mother’. I could not understand the depth of that comment. However, there were loud protests against it. A man born to the Hindu family he made that pronouncement which now links me to the worldview of Mahatma Gandhi. He also wanted to protect cows, but not through legislation. He said on several occasions that the issue of the protection of cow is associated with the Hindu faith and a matter concerning religious belief of a particular community cannot be imposed across the country through the secular mechanism of law. I think one needs to understand his statement that “cow is not his mother” in that perspective.

Swami Vivekananda, one of the foremost spiritual leaders of 
India and a devout Hindu , had observed in his book “Lectures from Colombo to Almora” that all communities including Brahmins had developed a tradition of eating beef in ancient India. In saying so he had no intention to offend Hinduism the fundamentals of which he expounded so brilliantly before the western audience. He made that observation after his triumphant return to India following his epoch making visit to the USA for participating in the World Parliament of religions in 1893. He outlined that much later the practice of eating beef was made a religious taboo to save cattle population to sustain the growing and expanding agricultural economy which depended critically on cows and oxen. Swamiji put facts in their proper context of history and society. It is imperative that we must understand Jyoti Basu’s Marxist worldview in the context against which he found it relevant. It is educative to note that in many parts of the world people are restoring their faith on Marxism and Marx’s explanation of the functioning of the capitalist system. This is part of the attempts to have reappraisal of the long held views and issue corrective statements to revise the well known stand points.

It was done by the Vatican, the headquarters of the Catholic Church, on the issue of the Karl Marx’s signal contribution inn understanding the theory of alienation in capitalist society. In a recent statement issued by the Vatican authorities it was acknowledged that the Karl Marx ‘s explanation of the cause of alienation in modern capitalist society remained valid and hailed it as a major development in comprehending the problems plaguing human beings and their social, economic and psychological well being in a system marked by commodification and dehumanisation.It took a few centuries for the orthodox Church authorities to retract their criticism of Marx who arguably gave one of the revolutionary doctrines for putting an end to exploitation and create a new human being free from market determinants and ever engaged to experience the real worth of life. 

The recovery of faith on Marx’s philosophy was yet again evident in the western world when the copies of the Das Capital were purchased by people in large numbers following the recent worst financial crisis which originated in the USA after the great depression of the 1930s and enveloped the whole world in a very short time.This renewal of interest in reposing faith on Marxism after excessive deregulation of the financial sector in the USA testified to its soundness in dealing with a greed driven market society going hay ware and perpetuating income inequality by according approval to pay exorbitant salaries to those who were the architects of the financial crisis of planetary proportions.

The intensity of relevance of communist movement for 
sustenance democracy was sharply brought out by a distinguished dignitary from Pakistan who during his visit to India a few years back had acceded to the point that absence of left movement in that country had contributed to erosion of democratic tradition.

It is in this context that one is fascinated by the way late Shri 
Jyoti Basu had the uncanny understanding of Marxism to make it a an ideological tool to fight not only against the prevailing injustice but for defending the democratic culture to ensure justice to the poor and working class people. His adherence to the doctrine of Marxism however did not keep his mind closed. He firmly believed in involving the masses in a democratic struggle and educate them about the programmes framed for their betterment. He felt that such a process of democratic involvement was more important than revolutionary struggle. His continuous rediscovery and renewal of his understanding of the Marxist ideology in the evolving situation of India made him the greatest elected communist leaders of the world. The State of West Bengal became
an arena for application of his constantly rejuvenated interpretation of Marxism. By following such an approach he provided leadership to the State of West Bengal which excelled in maintaining peace and harmony among its people.

It is remarkable that during his tenure as the Chief Minister 
of West Bengal he never allowed the politics of the State to be affected by the issues of Mandal or Kamandal. At that time, when the entire country was bedeviled by the gathering crisis of privileging one religious identity over another, he was stressing on the pluralistic culture of India and administering West Bengal by following the ideals of secularism. The demolition of Babri Masjid was one of the worst happenings in the history of our country. The late Vice President of India and Chairman of the Rajya Sabha Shri K.R. Narayanan, while presiding over the House, described that event as the worst tragedy the country faced after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. It is interesting that the late Shri Jyoti Basu referred to the people who spread the virus of communalism in the country as “barbarians”. He did not name anybody and yet was categorical in his assertion that the festering crisis resulting out of erosion of secular values would leave no space for those who believed in fostering the communal harmony in our country. His anger and agony in this respect expressed the feelings of those who considered secularism as a unifying force providing space to every citizen and even guaranteeing the rights of women to participate in public life.

His successful defence of secularism was the necessary 
component of his scheme of governance to enlist people’s involvement for implementing numerous schemes for promoting their well being. He believed that more than revolutionary struggle it is mass participation of ordinary people which will bring about true revolution within the framework of parliamentary democracy.Therefore, he expanded the scope of people’s participation through his historic measures for land reform and decentralization by strengthening the Panchayati Raj institutions. Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of our Nation, would have been mighty pleased to see his vision getting fructified by the efforts of Shri Jyoti Basu to enrich the traditions of Panchayati Raj and empower the peasants by guaranteeing their security and livelihood through a restructured arrangement of land in the villages. It is a reflection of Jyoti Babu’s deep understanding of Indian society where most of our people lived in villages and which needed more attention and energy for regenerating India. We take heart from the fact that a communist leader of great stature could do something at the practical level to bring to fruition what Gandhiji had articulated during our freedom struggle.

Even as he creatively interpreted the role of the communist movement within Parliamentary democracy and reached out to the private capital for West Bengal’s development, he underlined the lopsided globalization taking place across the world and therefore, wanted the economic reform to address the concerns of the rural India. In his interview with the Indian Express Editor-in-Chief, Shri Shekhar Gupta on N.D.T.V. 24x7 “Walk the Talk” he extended support to the economic reform but wanted that all those
who were carrying forward the reform process to remain mindful of the 70 per cent of our population living in the villages. He was a communist leader who began as a trade union activist and later fought for the rights of the sharecroppers and strengthening of panchayat institutions. In all his actions, one could see the footprints of Mahatma Gandhi. It is in fact a herculean task on the part of any leader to blend communism with Parliamentary democracy and remain tuned to the complications of Indian society marked by caste and many other primordial loyalties.

In one of his interviews to the Frontline, Shri Jyoti Basu was 
asked a question concerning the failure of the communist movement to address effectively the issue of caste and caste-based oppression. He candidly acknowledged that the communist leaders did not pay sufficient attention to caste. He even went to the extent of saying that the issues of untouchability did not merit much attention from them.

Even on the question concerning women’s participation, he 
was frank enough to go on record that absence of women leaders in the left movement constituted a negative feature. When he was questioned that the lack of women leaders in the left movement impeded its growth, he pointblank stated that the leadership did not pay much attention to it. Therefore, he wanted more women not only at the level of panchayats but in the party leadership and in he organization. He noted their sincerity in carrying out the responsibilities simultaneously in the family, in office and in the organization and, therefore, underlined the need to take advantage of their capability for the larger cause of communist movement and society. His unequivocal support to Women’s Reservation Bill guaranteeing 33 per cent seats to women in Parliament and Legislative Bodies validated his vision for women’s empowerment. It was a manifestation of his social vision which remains integral to his communist ideology flowering within the scope of Parliamentary democracy.

No wonder, therefore, that certain outstanding personalities 
of our country preferred him to be the Prime Minister of our country in 1996. He did not get that opportunity to occupy that high office and provide leadership to the nation.He described it as a “historic blunder”.It is interesting to recall that in 1999, when the N.D.A. Government at the Centre fell by the one vote and hectic attempts were made to form a new secular Government, many national leaders wanted Jyoti Basu as the Prime Minister.The late Shri K.R. Narayanan after demitting the office of the President of India had said that had Jyoti Basu been asked to form a Government that would have been better for the country. Such pronouncements from the top leadership of our nation is reflective of his national stature and the respect he commanded from all political parties.

He was wedded to Marxism and yet remained free from dogma. He was brought up in an urban setting and studied in London. And yet he turned to the villages of West Bengal for providing a sound base for eventual establishment of a Government shaped by communist ideology. It was his open mind which enabled him to navigate the difficult terrain of Parliamentary democracy and ultimately emerge as a colossus setting an example of probity and integrity in our public life. It is rare that a man who remained the Chief Minister for 23 long years became a national leader of par excellence and played a key role in 2004 in forming the United Progressive Alliance (U.P.A.) Government under the leadership of Dr. Manmohan Singh. His moral strength and his spiritual dignity were much more than the power he wielded and the clout he had. His rise as a mass leader within the framework of our Parliamentary democracy is a revolutionary development of our times. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the principal architect of our Constitution had said that Indian democracy would produce many more spectacular developments. I think the extraordinary phenomenon called Jyoti Basu is one of those constructive and spectacular developments which will for ever inspire the Indian Republic in fashioning its destiny in 21 st century.

  •       The author served as Officer on Special Duty and Press Secretary to President of India late Shri K R Narayanan and had a tenure in Prime Minister’s Office and Joint Secretary in Rajya Sabha Secretariat. Views expressed in the article are in his personal capacity.  
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