Ashok Mitra


[A younger comrade, pays homage to Jyoti Basu, a leader who died with his faith in the historical process unimpaired.]


Farewell to a comrade by one of the highly respected communists, Ashok Mitra, who had been associated with Jyoti Basu’s party for a long time.



India is to be without Jyoti Basu. The new reality will not sink easily into most minds. For most of the past half-a-century, the man had filled a crucial spot in the country’s political landscape. It was a movable spot since circumstances were evolving all the time, but the picture would never be complete without this man’s position and point of view. Allies, permanent or temporary, would be there to seek his counsel. Adversaries, too, would be aware of the differences and the weight of his views. The general feeling of a lack of coordinates, which has accompanied the announcement of his passing, is therefore understandable. This vacuum of feelings will, however, be different from person to person. That too owes to the magic of his persona. He had a way of interacting on the individual plane with whomever he met.


And this is perhaps what charisma is about. After Subhas Chandra Bose, Jyoti Basu was the next idol the Bengali masses created and clung to. The chemistry at work was almost inexplicable, for Jyoti Basu was by nature a shy and reserved individual. That apart, despite his fame as a spellbinding speaker, he abhorred histrionics; his voice never deviated from the normal pitch, the electric current nonetheless hurtled across in waves and a bond got instantly established between the person on the podium and the assembled disheveled rows of humanity. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Left Front owe an immense deal to this inexplicable phenomenon.


The Jyoti Basu story has a somewhat out-of-the-ordinary beginning. Some three quarters of a century ago, India was still a subjugated nation. The main agenda was the struggle for freedom. But a few youngsters with a background of affluence, living and studying in India, were convinced that liberation from foreign bondage was not enough: postcolonial India must be a just India, a socialist India, an India which would be an integral part of the great proletarian revolution ushered in by the Soviet Union. Jyoti Basu joined in and found company in the imperial capital. The young cadets even redistributed their allegiance between the India League and the Communist Party of Great Britain.


He returned to Calcutta as a full-time party worker, learning the rudiments of trade unionism in the loco-shed at Kanchrapara, at the docks in Kidderpore, spending long hard days at the Terai as comrade-in-arms of the struggling tea-garden workers, agitating for the tenurial rights for the share-croppers and living rights for the landless workers, learning the art of public speaking at impromptu street-corner sessions in Calcutta, getting to know comrades with different backgrounds in party classes where one learnt as much as one taught, finally arriving at the exhilarating awareness of reaching emotional integration with the down-and-outs in society.


Charisma develops from a modest base, but once that base was formed, there was an inevitability in the manner Jyoti Basu went to win mass adulation. His entry into the Bengal legislature was a happenstance that turned into a qualitative departure. The clipped three-fourth complete sentences that comprised his individual style of speaking to comrades, mixed with controlled passion and an added tincture of sarcasm, began to make history. The man continued to make history since.


The post-freedom Congress ruling the country had its own agenda. The fledgling communist party, often irrepressible, was a nuisance. Jyoti Basu was an integral part of that nuisance. Prison terms, short or long, therefore became commonplace. That further contributed to the charisma. For many from the lower echelons of society, going to his meetings or participating in a strike led by him was a privilege cum romantic adventure. But there was another side to his personality. He did not think much of the so-called intellectuals. He, however, knew that in Indian conditions a revolutionary party must strike its roots in the psyche of the middle-class. The intellectual community is an excellent intermediary. It was not difficult for Jyoti Basu to speak to them in their own lingo and tickle their ego. He, however, also knew how far to depend on them.


When the uprooted millions arrived from East Pakistan, his charisma worked wonders again. The great coalition formed in the Sixties and Seventies of the middle- and lower-classes, the peasants, the organized workers, the millions of unemployed and underemployed seemingly lost in the wilderness of the informal sector and, finally, the displaced persons provided the communists with its massive base of support in West Bengal, and in turn became the capital asset of the Left Front. Jyoti Basu emerged as the natural leader because of one particular personal attribute: he knew the limits of feasibility. He did not promise the moon either to the peasantry or to the workers or the destitute refugees. When he negotiated on behalf of engineering workers or college or school teachers too, he urged them to stay united, but he also warned them against indulging in excesses.


When he assumed office as chief minister, it was once more the same concern for feasibility. Entering  government was not a giant stride towards revolution; a state administration has to respect the ambits laid down for it in the Constitution, reflecting the mindset of the feudal capitalist power structure. The opportunity still has to be availed of to prove the point that the Left was capable of combining passion with efficiency and use the limited resources and the limited authority to advance the cause of the deprived masses. It was important to succeed in this goal, for such success would increase the credibility of the Left all over the country, thereby advancing the cause of the popular democratic revolution.


The deep regard for him at the national level was for a similar reason. Given the multi-lingual, multi-ethnic, multi-party chiaroscuro and the fact that the Left had to contain simultaneously the two dominant national parties, it would be necessary to combine formations that did not that easily combine. It was therefore important to harp on issues that bring disparate elements together.


Jyoti Basu found a uniting theme in the early 1980s: the third alternative was a living reality. Debate continues whether the refusal of his party in 1996 to let him be prime minister was a historic blunder or not. What can, however, be asserted with a measure of confidence is that but for the historic mishap which took place in October 31, 1984 — Indira Gandhi murdered by her own bodyguards — Jyoti Basu might well have emerged as the nation’s prime minister following the 1985 Lok Sabha elections. The powerful movement for restructuring Centre-state relations which Jyoti Basu initiated had gone from strength to strength and counted within its fold apart from the Left the as yet  unfractured Janata Dal, the DMK, the Telugu Desam, and even the National Conference in Kashmir. Public fury at Indira Gandhi’s coups in Kashmir and Andhra Pradesh — the first successful, the second a disaster — was intense and there was, of course, the standing discontent with runaway prices. It could have been a famous victory for the Opposition and the Left and its allies might have emerged as a major and decisive force in the rainbow coalition that would have come to power. Indira Gandhi’s assassination overturned the pseophologic arithmetic. The coalition Jyoti Basu had put together disintegrated. The 1996 scenario was qualitatively different. After that, it was a more inward looking statesman concentrating on West Bengal and retiring with grace in the final year of the century. The last few years were sad. Unfortunately his legacy was made a hash of in the last couple of years. But he still maintained his fortitude.


But he must have been an intensely lonely man missing his comrades, such as E.M.S Namboodiripad, B.T. Ranadive, P. Sundarayya and Pramode Dasgupta. And even earlier from his London days — Snehangshu Kanti Acharya and Bhupesh Gupta. The tranquility of death could not have been altogether unwelcome to him, for he departed with his faith in the inevitability of the historical process totally unimpaired. Did he not, given his long long years in the movement, face the sequences, ups and downs?


This piece is a humble homage from a comrade 13 years his younger who happened to be sworn in as minister under his leadership in the first Left Front government on that morning of June 21, 1977. Of the five sworn in that day, the rest are gone, only the junior comrade will perhaps have to survive for a while longer.

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