Infinitely complex, but a lively man nevertheless


One might as well think that Basu was a Communist and an astute politician and nothing else. But that’s only a veneer that the man had carefully nurtured over the years. There are people who project a bigger image while disguising some facets of their personalities. Basu belonged to the second category. He was a celebrity, a hearty friend, an implacable foe, a man of large faith and large flaws, an administrator who persevered. But he was also an outspoken and lively man who relished his role in the real world as much as he did his stature inside the party-government.

Look at this scenario. Basu speaking at an occasion in remembrance of Rabindranath Tagore, recalled how concerned Bengal’s greatest poet was about the “most vulnerable section of the society”, Tagore’s model of rural development, his (Tagore’s) vision of employment-oriented education. Rest assured that Basu never spent a word on Tagore’s creative works.

If one thinks that his Tagorean depth was limited to a speech at a public function, he or she will be grossly mistaken. Once, during a long ride to a remote district, Basu surprised his long-time comrade-in-arm Benoy Choudhury, who would often officiate as acting chief minister in Basu’s absence, by reciting Tagore. He went a step further, quoting verbatim what Tagore told ‘The New York Times’ on June 2, 1929, about Miss Mayo’s much talked-about book of the era ‘Mother India’. It would be wrong also to infer from Basu’s reaction to Buddhadev Bhattacherjee’s creative initiatives that the man was devoid of artistic instincts.

There are many in the CPM who disliked the favourable review of Utpal Dutt’s play ‘Barricade’ in the party’s Bengali mouthpiece ‘Ganashakti’. Heated discussions were on at the Alimuddin Street party office the next day when Basu stepped in. He was very upset; why should people fuss over such a creative work, its sarcasm about Communists notwithstanding, Basu wondered. The critics tried to convince Basu that Dutt had made fun of Basu in his previous play ‘Teer’. Basu was unmoved.

The party resisted the induction of noted Bengali author Manik Bandopadhyay (who was an employee of the British government then) because he was an alcoholic. The author’s wife called up Basu after a few days and said: “He has stopped drinking. Now you can take him in.” But by then, Basu had found out on his own that the author had stopped writing too. He told his anxious wife: “Don’t stop him from drinking. Tell him that I’ll ensure that he’s taken in.”

Interest in plays

The editor of ‘Maharastra Times’, Kumar Ketkar, once came to Kolkata to interview Basu. This was when Basu had been projected as the United Front prime ministerial candidate. Ketkar arrived with a questionnaire. After replying to a third and then a fourth question, Basu suddenly said: “Forget about politics; tell me what Tendulkar is staging these days.” A surprised Ketkar tried to recall some of Sachin Tendulkar’s recent big scores. Basu was least interested. “Oh, I get wind of that from newspapers any way. Since you’ve come from Bombay, I thought you could enlighten me about some of Vijay Tendulkar’s new plays.”

Basu tasted his maiden electoral defeat in 1972 at the hands of a lesser known CPI rival Shibapada Bhattacharya, by over 40,000 votes in the Baranagar Assembly seat in North 24 Parganas. Basu had by then won six consecutive elections from Baranagar (1952-1971). Acknowledging his greatness on Sunday, Shibapada described Basu as a master of parliamentary democracy and one of the greatest Communist leaders ever born in India. Recalling vividly the day in 1972 when the results were announced, he said: “Although I was confident of my victory, nervousness crept in at the last moment as I was up against a man considered invincible.”

Basu and Bhattacharya were comrades-in-arm till the CPI split in 1964, forcing Basu to join the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM). In a letter entitled ‘Save the party from revisionism and dogmatic extremists’ written from jail in 1963, a year before CPM was formed, Basu was initially against its creation, saying: “We have to continue our ideological struggle against Dange’s politics of revisionism. It will not be right to split the party.”

Bhattacharya, who was Basu’s aide during the latter’s election campaigns until 1964, reminicised: “Before the split I used to look after his (Basu’s) electioneering. I was moved by his cool temperament and observational skills. During those days, Basu didn’t have the political stature he came to enjoy later.” During the heady days after the Left Front was swpet to power in 1977, Basu took over as the chief minister and the CPI joined the Front in 1980. Yet, as chief minister and a senior leader of the Front, Basu visited Baranagar several times to attend public rallies and meetings. “Both of us shared the dais but we hardly spoke”, rued Bhattacharya.

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