A pragmatic depart

Jyoti Basu, who passed away on Sunday, was among the iconic leaders of India’s communist movement. He was also among the few leaders who transcended regional, organisational and ideological confines and gained national stature and acceptability. Echoing Engels, he once famously and defiantly said that he won’t conform to the world and would change it. As a Marxist he believed in the inexorable movement of history and discounted the role of personalities in it. But the man’s mind, style and life left a deep mark on the history of his state and gave his party an emblematic face for many decades. He was never the party’s top leader at the national level. There were greater ideologists in the party, better organisers and leaders with deeper and wider roots in the rank and file. But the parts combined in the chemistry of his personality gave the sum the indefinable quality of charisma.

Basu has sometimes been described as among the best prime ministers the country never had. He has himself described the party’s decision to reject the prime ministership that was offered to him in 1996 as a historic blunder. But possibilities don’t define a person, and Basu has accomplishments that give him a place in history, beyond the would-have-been’s of fickle coalitional politics. He was the longest serving chief minister in the country, held together a regional coalition from 1977 to 2000 and gave stability to West Bengal. As an administrator he had few equals. He combined aggression, authority, good sense and human concern in governance of a state known for volatility and quakes of popular moods. The organisational strength of the party certainly helped, but it was Basu’s strength that he made the best use of it. He was principled but not doctrinaire, sometimes arrogant but always honest and an intrepid fighter who valued consensus.

Times have changed, the party has lost some of its sheen and standing, and there are signs of the state looking for new directions after Basu retired from government and active politics. There are even questions whether the Basu era froze Bengal in the past when the country was moving into the future. His successor and the party are grappling with the new forces. But he will be judged in sympathy, and will be remembered as one of the most remarkable politicians in the latter half of the country’s last century, always the quintessential party man but, contradictorily, the man who also could see the world beyond the party.

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