Man of Light, Prince of Darkness

Jayant Chowdhury

Feb 08, 2015, 07:25 PM | Updated Feb 18, 2016, 12:27 PM IST

It is the centenary year of Jyoti Basu, “the great helmsman”. Time to make an honest appraisal of the man and what he wrought.

Born on July 8, 1914, his original name was Jyotindra—the king of light. When he was five, his father shortened it to Jyoti—light. His political career personified darkness.

Jyoti Basu presided over the abysmal decline of the state he ruled as Chief Minister for a record five consecutive terms from June 21, 1977, to November 6, 2000, when he stepped down due to advancing age. He turned West Bengal to “Waste” Bengal.

Had CPM not been relegated to the margins in the state, the party would have definitely been celebrating July 2014-July 2015 as Basu’s birth centenary year with a lot of fanfare, singing the virtues of a “towering statesman”.

It is, therefore, pertinent now to examine the qualities and performance of India’s longest-serving chief minister.

Born to a middle-class family of Calcutta on July 8, 1914, Basu studied in convent schools, graduated in English from Hindu College (now Presidency University), where he was a back-bencher, and went to London to study law after failing to crack the civil service examinations.

While in London, he got taken in by the rhetoric of the likes of Harry Pollitt, Rajani Palme Dutt, Ben Bradley and other Communist leaders and also by the lectures of Harold Laski at the London School of Economics.

After qualifying as a barrister at Middle Temple, London, in 1940, he returned to Calcutta and promptly announced to his father that he would, instead of practising law, join the Communist Party of India.

Nishikanta Basu, a physician, who had spent a fortune on his son’s education in London, was understandably aghast, but no amount of pleading would move his son. The only request of his family that the young man acceded to was to get married that very year.

Basu’s utter disregard for his parents’ request to put the law degree (which the middle-class family made considerable sacrifices for him to obtain) to good use and his easy acquiescence to another urging of his parents—to get married, which suited him, provides an early peep into the man’s character.

Of course, Jyoti Basu is still worshiped by the hordes that subscribe to an ideology, well past its shelf life. A simple Google search reveals a deluge of adulatory articles. But the answer to all that is a simple question: What did Basu do for West Bengal?

The Bengal that Basu’s successor Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee inherited from the “great helmsman” was a sad picture of poverty, backwardness, ignorance and disease. It wasn’t very different from the Bengal of 1977 when Basu became chief minister for the first time.

But the Bengal of 1977 was on its knees primarily due to the rampage of the leftists and ultra-leftists from the late 1960s onwards. Bandhs, gheraos at industrial units that led to their eventual closures, murderous attacks on “class enemies”, and general unrest led to a flight of capital from the state and its steady decay into an industrial graveyard.

Basu, thus, took over a decrepit state whose desolation he and his fellow Communists had wrought. The one he handed over to Bhattacharjee 23 years later was as bleak and barren. So much for Basu’s performance.

Two developments are touted as Basu’s stellar achievements. One is land reforms—the registration of sharecroppers (bargadars) and ensuring their tenancy rights under “Operation Barga”, along with redistribution of ceiling surplus land to landless peasants.

The other is the devolution of power to the panchayats. From 1978 (when Operation Barga was launched) to 1994, 14.6 lakh sharecroppers were registered over an area of 451,800 hectares and they were assured of a fixed share of the farm produce and protected against arbitrary eviction by landlords.

Also, 2.5 lakh acres of ceiling surplus and benami land was re-distributed to landless peasants. About half the rural households in the state benefited from these reforms. And admittedly, the Left Front regime that Basu headed pioneered panchayati raj in India and power was actually decentralized.

But wait. There was widespread favouritism in registering the sharecroppers and only CPM supporters and people chosen by the party were registered. The bargadars became the new elite and the backbone of CPM in the villages, unleashing a reign of terror in rural Bengal.

Basu’s government did not take into account the highly segregated landholding patterns and ignored irrigation that could have sustained a rise in farm produce and productivity. It also failed—or did not care—to develop markets for farm produce and small farmers were left at the mercy of rapacious middlemen, all of whom were local CPM leaders or party supporters.

As for redistribution of ceiling surplus land, here too, most of the beneficiaries were CPM activists and supporters. Only a quarter of the ceiling surplus and benami land acquired by the government was actually redistributed to the landless. The rest of the land (actually government-owned farmlands) was taken over by CPM men.

In 2009, Land Reforms Minister Abdul Rezzak Mollah admitted that 27 per cent of the registered bargadars had lost their registered rights as sharecroppers and an equal number feared losing their registration.

That the much-hyped land reforms did not succeed in the long run is evident from the fact that Bengal’s rural economy was in shambles when Basu relinquished office. One major indicator of this was the mass migration from rural to urban areas and to other states in search of work.

According to National Sample Survey data, the percentage of rural households not getting enough food every day in some months of the year is the highest in Bengal (10.6 per cent), far ahead of second-ranker Odisha (4.8 per cent).

Predominantly rural Purulia is one of the poorest districts in India with 78 per cent of the people below the poverty line. Farmers all over Bengal barely manage to eke a living. So much for Basu being a visionary.

The real story behind the panchayati raj achievement is a sinister one. Basu and his comrades saw in decentralization of powers and their devolution to panchayats a fine way to establish a stranglehold of CPM on rural Bengal and perpetuate its brutal hegemony to win election after election.

The panchayats, panchayat samitis and zila parishads became the party’s extension offices and they subverted district administrations.

There are indicators galore to debunk the Basu myth. Communists and fellow-travellers claim that during the Basu years, the number of poor declined dramatically in Bengal. Yes, the percentage of people living below the poverty line did decline from 73.2 per cent in 1974 to 28.6 per cent in 2004.

But this was an all-India phenomenon—the percentage of poor in India declined from 56.4 per cent to 28.2 per cent during this period—and Basu can claim little credit for it.

During Basu’s tenure (and even now) Bengal’s performance in immunization, antenatal care, women’s nutrition, ratio of doctors and hospital beds to population, child mortality and literacy were consistently below the national average.

Here is a damning statistic. During his 23-year tenure, not a single primary health centre was set up in the state!

On unemployment, West Bengal ranked third from the bottom among all Indian states from 1983 to 2001. In education, West Bengal slipped from 6th position to 17th position in the country between 1977 and 2000. When Basu left office in 2000, the state’s fiscal deficit amounted to a whopping Rs 7,109 crore.

During his tenure, nearly 70,000 industrial units closed down or were declared “sick”. An unrepentant Basu’s stock response to the sorry state of Bengal was: (a) stepmotherly treatment by the Union government; (b) denial to West Bengal of its due share of central and foreign aid; (c) discriminatory industrial and economic polices pursued by the Union government; (d) a systematic disinformation campaign by the “bourgeois media”; and (e) “deep conspiracy by MNCs at the behest of imperial and neo-colonial powers to deprive Bengal of investments”.

There is only one way to describe this bunch of excuses: a load of bunkum.

One of Basu’s worst legacies is the politicization of education and the state machinery, including the police force. Not a single appointment in educational institutions starting from the Vice Chancellor of a university to a peon in a primary school could be made without the nod of the mandarins at CPM state headquarters at Alimuddin Street in Kolkata.

The standard of education plummeted. English as a subject was abolished from schools at the primary level and this left a few generations of Bengalis unemployable. Of course, Basu’s son, and then his two granddaughters, studied in private English-medium schools.

CPM systematically reduced the senior-most state bureaucrats to powerless functionaries, who were expected to carry out the orders of the party apparatchik. The state administration was made a mere adjunct to the party machinery.

The lower and middle-level bureaucracy was packed with CPM supporters, who devoted more time and attention to party work than office work. Work culture of the state took a nosedive. Even Basu himself, in his later years, started lamenting this.

The police force was politicized and the constabulary egged on to form a union affiliated to, unsurprisingly, CPM. As a result, lower ranks of the force started acting on the orders of CPM functionaries rather than their seniors.

Basu is often touted as a bhadralok (genteel) politician. But it was during his tenure that political violence peaked in Bengal. Many political opponents were killed and maimed, and Basu remained a happy spectator to his party unleashing musclemen and goons on hapless people to strengthen and perpetuate its vice-like grip over the state.

It was on Basu’s watch that rigging elections was developed into a fine art. He presided over a party that made violence, threats and intimidation an acceptable part of Bengal politics.

Basu oversaw brutal retribution against the Ananda Marg, a socio-spiritual organization, for an assassination attempt on him at Patna railway station on March 31, 1970, allegedly by a member of the organization.

Twelve years later, on April 30, 1982, alleged CPM goons torched 16 monks and nuns belonging to that order in upper-middle-class south Kolkata in broad daylight with the police looking on, marking the nadir in Bengal’s bloody history. No one was ever arrested for the carnage. So much for the bhadralok.

He was singularly responsible for the rise and empowerment of the “lumpen proletariat”. Basu allowed and even encouraged his party to build an army of musclemen and goondas, who would stifle dissent, intimidate opposition forces and rig elections, with various criminal activities as their day job.

Very few tangible qualities can also be attributed to Basu. He was a poor orator and his staccato speeches were full of inanities. He articulated no vision. The only quote ascribed to him is meaningless—“It is the people, and people alone, who create history”.

He was extremely class-conscious, never socializing with his comrades from modest backgrounds, and comfortable only with the likes of Somnath Chatterjee, an aristocratic barrister. Basu was hardly Communist in his lifestyle; he loved holidaying in London and many of the fine things in life, including his daily tipple of scotch.

Basu, as former Trinamool Congress leader (who was also leader of Opposition in the state assembly) Pankaj Banerjee put it, was devoid of any ideology. “He used to talk like Che at Politburo meetings, was a pucca trade unionist when dealing with workers and spoke like an industrialist at business seminars. Basu was like a liquid, taking on the shape of its container,” Banerjee once told this writer.

Why and how, then, did Basu and his comrades create that aura around him? One answer could be that they, quite like the Goebbels they loved to hate, employed the tactic of “a lie repeated a thousand times becomes the truth”.

But there may be more to it. Basu was bilet pherot (someone who had been to England, to study or work), which, to most Bengalis starved of opportunities, was a major achievement and a virtue worth extolling to the high heavens.

He was imperious and the masses liked that even more. His grim visage and the bored and disinterested look he sported in public, his monosyllabic response to questions, his autocratic style, and his bhadralok attire of crisp white dhoti-kurta complemented by his perfectly polished shoes added to his aura. Basu and Bengal were made for each other.

Jyoti Basu is often extolled as a true democrat. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Basu, like his comrades, was highly distrustful of parliamentary politics. He was one among the many Communists, who termed India’s Independence jhooti azadi and gave the call for armed insurgency across the country to overthrow the Nehru government and establish Communist rule as Mao did in China.

He was a firm believer in Lenin’s recommendation that “Communists must contest bourgeois elections to serve as tribunes of the people in order to expose the cretinism of parliamentary democracy from within, so as to prepare the masses for participation in revolutionary anti-parliamentary politics”.

In other words, sabotage the system from within—take advantage of the freedoms that democracy accords to wreck democracy.

During the Sino-Indian war of 1962, Basu supported China. During the Kargil war, Basu and his ministers—unlike in almost every other state—never bothered to receive the bodies of soldiers that arrived in coffins from the battlefront.

The state administration did nothing for the widows and families of the Kargil martyrs. Basu vehemently opposed the erection of the Vijay Smarak outside the south gates of Fort William, the seat of the Indian Army’s eastern command, to commemorate the sacrifices of the 1971 war, arguing that Dhaka should be the only place where such a memorial could be erected.

It was only in the early 1990s that the army could build the memorial on what was its own land and that too forcibly. So much for the democrat and patriot.

Another so-called virtue of his is that he was a pragmatist. That he was, but a more correct term would be “opportunist”. Basu quickly realised that Mao’s tactics could not be deployed in India without waging a prolonged armed insurgency. That would mean abandoning his cozy lifestyle to a life in the jungles (like Maoists today in some parts of India).

He had no stomach for that and successfully argued with his comrades to embrace parliamentary democracy and enjoy the benefits of power. He was a pragmatist as far as his own comfort was concerned. That is hardly a virtue.

Basu, thus, was one the most spectacularly unsuccessful chief ministers that independent India has had and presided over the ruination of his state. He was an arrogant and vainglorious man, who suffered from delusions of greatness.

His only achievement, perhaps, was that he was able to fool so many people for so long. Layer of lies mask the extraordinary non-performance and hypocrisy of a man, who was a clever and dangerous midget, not the towering persona he is projected as. One can only hope that history will accurately judge this man and his crimes against his people.

Jayant Chowdhury is an avid observer of and commentator on politics and society in Bengal and eastern, including north-eastern, India.

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