Man of seeming contradictions

Last Updated 17 January 2010, 19:26 IST

For much of the 23 years that he governed West Bengal as its Communist chief minister, Jyoti Basu made Kolkata and the state dance to the rhythm of labour strikes, land reforms, street agitations, Marxist theorising and free market economics.

The country’s longest serving chief minister was a political personality of seeming contradictions. Born into an aristocratic Dhaka family on July 8, 1914, Jyotindra was affectionately called Gana. His father shortened his name to Jyoti who, in 1920, was admitted to Loreto School in Kolkata and then went to St Xavier’s School in the same city.
After graduating in English (Honours) from Presidency College, Basu was trained as a barrister in London before Indian independence. After his return to India, he came of age as a labour organiser in the railroads.  Since entering politics in the 1940s, he won more elections than any other chief minister in recent Indian history, emerging as one of the country’s most shrewd and successful politicians.

Basu cut his teeth in electoral politics in 1946 when he defeated Humayun Kabir of the Congress. That victory, coupled with a soul-stirring speech on the food crisis, nearly electrified the West Bengal Assembly. That was the beginning of the ‘Long March’, so to say, which came to an end on Sunday.


He was the patriarch of Independent India’s Communism as also the arch-apostle of economic liberalisation and free market economics for a state whose capital city, Kolkata, is a byword for urban poverty and decay. After Partition, Basu remained member of the Assembly but was arrested when the Communist Party of India (CPI)  was banned following its call for open revolt. He was released on the orders of the High Court and remained a Legislative Assembly member between 1952 and 1972, the year when he tasted his maiden defeat.

In the 1950s Basu, with Pramod Das Gupta, the Communist ideologue, became the joint leader of the West Bengal Communists. He became state party secretary and led the CPI’s Parliamentary tactics in Bengal against the Congress.

The anti-Congress nature of Bengal Communism led Basu to align with the Communist Party of India- Marxist (CPM) following schism in the CPI in 1964.

Credited with crafting and implementing land reforms in Bengal where he distributed land to more than a million landless sharecroppers, and backing the demands of workers for higher minimum wages, Basu’s initial years in power was marked by trenchant criticism of capitalism, American imperialism and the Congress’s alleged misrule.

Those were the halcyon days of ‘laal salaam’ (Red salute) and ‘Brigade cholo’. But by the 1990s, when the country was set on the course of economic liberalisation, Basu had turned over a new leaf. He became generally more liberal and flexible on economic and political theory - and their pratice - than most of his fellow Communist leaders, many of whom continue to admire Stalin. He was also more flexible on tactical alliances.

Love for scotch

A liberal in personal tastes, Basu loved his Blue Label scotch and was as much comfortable in starched dhoti and kurta and palm shoes as much as in gala-bandh suits he attired in on tours abroad, which was mostly Britain. But there were also streaks of arrogance. When newsmen sought his comments on the ghastly rape of a Bangladeshi pavement dweller by a policeman in a Calcutta police station, Basu replied in his acerbic tongue: “These things happen”, which prompted ‘The Statesman’ to publish an editorial asking him “These things Mr Basu?” Basu came in for criticism also for turning a Nelson’s eye to the incessant inflow of Bangladeshi illegal immigrants which his party courted, harboured and nurtured as a vote bank.

In 1989, he made a preposterous statement in the West Bengal Assembly, claiming with a straight face that there were only 10,000 Bangladeshi illegal immigrants in the state.
But by that time, he had successfully managed to showcase Bengal as a benchmark of peace and stability, if not prosperity. Many political observers claim that Basu’s stint as chief minister was a one-man show, for, Basu was like a one-man institution.

It was only once in 1998 that he violated party discipline by speaking out publicly against the decision of the CPM Central Committee and the Politburo to sit in Opposition when the United Front government assumed office in New Delhi in 1996. There was a groundswell of support for Basu to head that United Front government. But that was not to be; while bowing to democratic centralism that governs the CP

M, Basu termed the party decision a “historic blunder”, which triggered confusion in the rank-and-file.

Long before that missed opportunity, the party had given way to squabbles and infighting, phenomena over which his control had begun to slip as the disciplined organisation of yore slipped into not just dissension but proliferated cadre and promoter raj.

Basu formally announced stepping down from office on October 27, 2000 on health grounds. Novermber 6 of that year was marked as the day for the longest-serving chief minister of India to formally relinquish office.

Expectations, apprehensions and explanations flew thick and fast with many political pundits feeling that the occasion could possibly mark the end of CPM-led Left Front government’s uninterrupted rule. It was believed that Basu’s protégée Buddhadev Bhattacherjee would in no way match his mentor’s charisma and brilliance in managing crises. Nine years after Basu quit active politics, the signs of the CPM’s demise in Bengal are getting more ominous by the day.

On the last day at the Writers’ Building (the state secretariat), as he bid adieu to active politics, an admirer gifted Basu a rare photograph of him with B C Roy, Bengal’s first chief minister. The photograph prompted an otherwise stern Basu to take a trip down memory lane. “Once he (Roy) told me ‘I’ll make you sit on my chair one day.’’’

 That was a stunning reality. And, as a fitting tribute to his memory, the chair has been preserved for the generations to come even though Basu has left his admirers and detractors for ever. Like King Louis XIV of France, only Basu could have dared to say “after me, the deluge”.

The great march

* Born on July 8,1914. Educated at St Xavier’s School and College. Graduated from Presidency College, Kolkata in 1935  and studied law at Middle Temple, London.

* Came into political prominence in 1940 after his soul-stirring speech on Bengal’s food crisis and  peasant movement.

* Elected to the Bengal Legislative Assembly in 1946, contesting the Railway constituency; defeated Congress’ Humayun Kabir. Remained leader of the Opposition in the West Bengal Legislative Assembly from 1952 to 1967.

* On March 2,1967, became the first deputy chief minister of         the United Front government. Again became the deputy chief minister of the second United Front government  on February 25, 1969.

* Remained a member of the CPM Politburo from the time of the party’s founding in 1964 until 2008.

* In the 1972 mid-term polls, inflicted a humiliating defeat on Bangla Congress nominee and possible CM-in-waiting Ajay Mukherjee. Tasted maiden electoral defeat in 1972. (He later withdrew his candidature alleging rigging).

* On June 21, 1977, became the chief minister of the CPM-led Left Front government. Also played a stellar role in the for mation of a Third Front, by organising a conclave of non-Congress chief ministers in 1984.

* In December 1989, was felicitated by the Rajya Sabha deputy chairperson on completing 50 years in Parliamentary politics. The 18th CPM Party Congress re-elected Basu to the Politburo in 2005 despite his pleading for retirement  from it. On September 13, 2006, his second request to the party was also turned down.

* Formally announced stepping down from office on Oct 27, 2000. The Left Front accepted his resignation on Oct 28, 2000. In November 6, 2000, he passed the CM’s baton to his deputy Buddhadev Bhattacherjee. At the 19th Party Congress in early April 2008, Basu was dropped from the Politburo on health grounds, although he remained a member of the Central Committee and was designated as Special Invitee to the Politburo.

* January 1, 2010 - taken ill and hospitalised with actute respiratory trouble, pneumonia.

*January 17, 2010 - Passes away

‘Jyotirindra’ became Jyoti

The parents of Jyoti Basu had faced a dilemma while finalising his first name, reports PTI from Kolkata.

Two names “Jyotirindra” and “Ranthindra” were proposed and his parents, Nishikanta Basu and Hemlata Basu, settled for the first     that signified a long and     steady flame.
“Only when my father got me admitted to Loreto     Kindergarden did he decide     to shorten it. And, I became Jyoti Basu,” his authorised biographer Surabhi Banerjee wrote.
Basu was the third child of his parents.

Basu tasted tea at 21

Jyoti Basu tasted his first cup of tea at the age of 21 when he was in London as his father Nishikanta Basu, a physician by profession, disallowed it, reports PTI from Kolkata.

Basu’s father also restrained his three children, including Basu, from seeing films. Young Basu longed to see Alfred Hitchcock’s “Blackmail,” “Phantom of the Opera,” “The Blue Angel,” “City Lights” then showing here, but could not. After Basu became the chief minister of West Bengal, his government sponsored several films including Satyajit Ray’s “Hirak Rajar Desh.”

A towering statesman: US

The United States has condoled the demise of Jyoti Basu, terming him a “towering statesman”, report agencies from New Delhi.

“Mr Basu was a towering statesman in post-Independence India,” US ambassador to India Timothy Roemer said in a statement here on Sunday.

“On behalf of the United States of America, I extend my deep condolences to the family of Mr Jyoti Basu and to the people of West Bengal and India on news of his death today,” he said, adding: “Our thoughts and prayers are with Mr Basu’s family at this difficult time.”

Trending topic on Twitter

 Jyoti Basu on Sunday became a trending topic in micro blogging site ‘twitter.com’ with ‘RIP’ (rest in peace) being the most common tweet, including one from Minister of State for External Affairs Shashi Tharoor, reports PTI from Kolkata.

“Jyoti Basu, 1914-2010. RIP,” read Tharoor’s tweet. The tweets followed Basu’s hearse from the AMRI Hospital in Salt Lake, where he fought death valiantly for 17 days, to funeral parlour, Peace Haven. The tweets ranged from unadulterated hero worship to tongue-in-cheek comments for the nonagenarian leader.

Hasina to visit Kolkata

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will visit Kolkata on Monday to pay her last respects to  Jyoti Basu, reports PTI from New Delhi.

Hasina had during her visit to Delhi last week voiced concern over the condition of Basu’s condition and expressed her desire to visit him at the Kolkata hospital, but said paucity of time prevented her from doing so. In a condolence message to Prime Minister Singh, Hasina, described Basu as “one of the leading political figures” of the sub-continent and his death was a “great loss” not only for India but also for the South Asian region.

(Published 17 January 2010, 19:26 IST)

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