Vinod Mubayi and Daya Varma


Jyoti Basu, the most respected leader of the communists in India, passed away recently.


Jyoti Basu was 95 and had been out of office for almost a decade when he passed away on January 17, 2010.  The kind of adulation he received on his demise, as witnessed by the enormous outpouring of grief and emotion that enveloped not only his hometown, Calcutta, but was reflected in public gatherings and the media all over India, demonstrated vividly the importance of leadership and personality in politics.  He was not known to be gregarious or effusive in public life; instead, he was known to be cool, unemotional, laconic, and rational in his approach.  However, for a variety of reasons, the people trusted him deeply and to such an extent that the record he achieved serving as his State’s Chief Executive for 23 years is unlikely to be approached, let alone equaled or exceeded in Indian politics.  And this trust extended beyond Bengal when Jyoti Basu was offered the post of Prime Minister of India in 1996 to lead a United Front government despite the fact that the Left Front held fewer than 10% of the seats in the Lok Sabha at that time.  The CPM Polit Bureau’s decision turning down the offer was subsequently described as a historic blunder by none other than Jyoti Basu himself, but being a disciplined party member he abided by it.  No other communist leader in India has achieved the kind of national stature in the country that Jyoti Basu had.  His personal devotion to communist ideals was illustrated by his decision to donate his body to medical science rather than be subject to cremation in a religious ceremony.


Basu’s signal achievement in office was Operation Barga, passage of a landmark land reform legislation that granted tenancy rights to sharecroppers. In his obituary of Basu in the current issue of Frontline (Jan. 30-Feb. 12, 2010), veteran journalist Praful Bidwai comments that while Operation Barga “was not as radical as the land reform in Kerala, which gave the landowning poor full ownership rights… it was one of the world’s greatest agrarian reforms. The rural panchayats created and consolidated the Left Front’s base in villages and has been key to its victory in election after election.”  In the same issue of Frontline, noted social commentator Aijaz Ahmed remarked on another achievement associated with Basu: “Jyoti Basu was also perhaps the most vigorous champion of federalism in Indian politics. We have inherited from our colonial masters a mode of governance that is essentially viceregal in nature… the federating units getting subjected to the whims and prerogatives of the Union government. India is constitutionally not a unitary nation-state but in fact a union of nationalities, which means that more power, including legislative and fiscal power, needs to be devolved to the federating units. Throughout his long tenure as Chief Minister, Jyoti Basu was the pre-eminent spokesperson for this position in national politics.”


Perhaps because of a critical reassessment of the International Communist Movement subsequent to the collapse of the Soviet Union, perhaps because of critical analysis of Indian polity and cognizant of Indian democracy, and perhaps witnessing the emergence of communist governments in power in some states through elections, but not in Delhi, Jyoti Basu wanted the broad left in India, including his party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), to emerge as a left democratic force of governance rather than remain merely a parliamentary opposition. Sadly his vision and desire may not succeed, thanks to the stereotypical and lame leadership which seems to have taken over his own party, as well as the mood of entrenched sectarianism among the Indian left in general.


The stature and acceptability possessed by Basu owed a lot to his administrative ability and political acumen and wisdom gathered over an extraordinary 70 year political career.  Basu’s absence from office goes some way in explaining the reasons underlying the slew of problems affecting the Left Front governments in Bengal and Kerala as well as the Left’s considerably diminished presence nationally following its disastrous performance in the 2008 elections.  Three retrograde decisions made by the CPM’s current leadership illustrate this clearly.  First, the decision to break with Congress to such an extent as to join hands with the right-wing, reactionary BJP in opposing the Indo-US nuclear deal.  Second, to expel the veteran CPM leader Somnath Chatterjee from the party and to lose the prestigious position of Speaker of Parliament that Chatterjee occupied simply because he would not act according to the party’s dictates in the matter.  Third, to enter into an utterly opportunistic electoral alliance and join hands with politicians like Jayalalithaa, Mayawati, and Chandrababu Naidu just to oppose Congress resulting in a humiliating defeat and complete reversal of the gains made by the Left in 2004.  It is significant that Jyoti Basu opposed all these decisions made by the party leaders for which the Left movement is paying a heavy price. 

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