Salutations to Comrade Jyoti Basu - An Intergenerational Tribute

May 22, 2010
Kaustav Bhattacharyya

Comrade Jyoti Basu is dead!! A grand political era came to an end, an entire generation grew up with him as the Chief Minister of West Bengal. For this group of young men and women no one else but Mr. Jyoti Basu could win elections successively and mantle the don of Chief Ministership of Bengal.

I belong to that generation which grew up with Mr. Basu’s regime which was synonymous with long power cuts, chronic unemployment, flight of middle-class professionals, crippling infrastructure, de-industrialization; our generation also heard recollected tales of violence and horror in the earlier decades preceding Mr. Basu’s regime. Mr. Basu’s credibility was the restoration of peace, law and order post the anarchy of the early 70s, words like ‘naxals’ sent shudders down our spine like mothers telling the tales of war to their children. One often heard of the late 60s, early 70s, which saw the frequent occurrence of bandhs, strikes, transport burning and bringing normal life to a standstill. Surely one legacy of Jyotibabu will be his ability and tact to calm the nerves of a city and society which were in flames when he stepped into the powerful CMs position. Bengali radicalism is something which existed long before the advent of left front government as manifested in several popular literary works and films including Satyajit Ray.

As we pause, reflect and collate the myriad images, thoughts, words, its time to consider the multiple facets of Mr. Jyoti Basu and his leadership. As we pay our tributes to Jyotibabu, it would be prudent to look at each different facet of the personality.


The hysterical reaction of the right-wing business channels laced with sentimentality melancholy calls for serious thought and analysis. What exactly these channels felt so touched about the great leader of Bengal to be so awesomely iconic, ones who are usually hostile to the Left-brand of politics and Bengal’s policies?? I followed rather closely this coverage and the expressions which kept constantly glaringly beaming on the screen were; gentleman, communist, bhadralok, LSE-educated, dignified, cutting across party lines, cutting across social boundaries, Anglophile, respectable apart from a whole lot of other epithets.

This is particularly commendable since politicians rarely in this country are appreciated and adored for refined tastes. One can’t watch a TV news today without an incident of apology from a politician for abusive, derogatory remarks hurled at an opponent. Broad-daylight, blatant mud-slinging amongst elected representatives in our highest legislative bodies surely can make us nostalgic for someone like Mr. Basu whose language was highly restrained. His personal reading revolved around PG Wodehouse, his ironic sense of humour and taste for fine scotch only adds to the very gravitas which symbolized his personality. If one harbours romantic notions of an idyllic era in public life like myself, (not sure if one ever existed) one will appreciate the absence of crude pragmatism in Mr. Basu, the person. We can critique his regime, his party ideology, his brand of Left politics but here we are discussing the person, the leader Mr. Jyoti Basu.

How many Chief Ministers in India in the future will be appreciative of the very subtle and abstract humour of PG Wodehouse?? Interestingly the mainstream media focused on the person Jyoti Basu rather than his politics, policies or electoral battles. There seems to be an overwhelming consensus on the PERSON Mr. Jyoti Basu, as tributes flowed in after his sad demise.

Mr. Jyoti Basu clearly mentions in one his recorded interviews that he learnt the ropes of Communism in England, rather emphatically in his typical stern tone, and this was an era heavily influenced by the Spanish Civil War and other events of Europe which shaped the last century. What is fascinating is Mr. Basu’s indoctrination into Communism is itself an educative journey into imperial politics of Europe, the historical backdrop of the rise of ‘Red’ forcse, which sadly is not captured by our media. If one watches the documentary ‘Cambridge Spies’ often aired in History channel this reality of emergence of British Communism amongst the educated bright young minds comes out very clearly.

Gentlemanly qualities which were imbibed in the inner confines of London bar is an anachronism and can only be appreciated in retrospective in these days of heady, bustling, mud-slinging brand of politics. This breed of Gentleman politician, whose pursuit of political career does not interfere with his amateurish ideals of reading, sports, ironic sense of humour and social pleasantries is the distinct mark of Jyotibabu and can find only a decreasing audience which will appreciate. Thankfully the personal attributes are not overlooked in an assessment of the political leader in India, which one should regard as commendable and necessary. Decency and rightful conduct in public life are qualities highly demanded of a political leader in contemporary India.


The irony is that even though the Bengal capitalist managerial class held Left front regime responsible for economic woes and hostile climate for enterprise, it admired its leadership at an inter-personal level. This was clearly manifest at the pouring tributes from CII head and several other Kolkata industrialists like Russi Mody. Some of the comments should not come as a surprise since many of them did share the dais with Mr. Basu on several occasions including ceremonies at his old alma mater; St. Xavier’s School.

Here we find the phenomena of personal appeal of a politician cutting across party and social lines which otherwise were cleavages along which many fearsome electoral battles were fought. In the midst of a Left regime there existed so-called ‘bourgeoisie’ enclaves where the gentlemen communists and gentlemen capitalists interacted and participated. No one in the corporate Kolkata could deny that some of the Communist leaders were the best and brightest of their generation, studied with distinction in the same hallowed portals of LSE, Oxbridge or the law courts and then got swayed into this radical revolutionary movement. What we witness is a rare phenomena of admiration at a personal, social plane for politicians who otherwise are chided for their policies. Often one would hear in an elegant cocktail party someone mentioning their old barrister friend having lost their way into ‘communism’ or gone ashtray with ‘disturbing’ brand of politics which in effect was more of an affectionate condescension rather than outright debunking of public figures.

It stands out clearly as a very relevant lesson for the next generation of public leaders, to uphold the notion of a cross-party, across the social spectrum appeal which is based on ethos of civilized conduct in public life and an inspiring personal leadership. Our urban middle-class is primarily obsessed with corruption, nepotism and hence admire tough brutal leadership which challenge the establishment with vigour as displayed in the rituals of demolition of illegal urban structures. Indian middle-class admires fiery rhetoric with a dynamic, action-oriented personality. We need to accept from Mr. Basu’ s example one need not engage in such visible demonstrations of no-nonsense, so-called high ethical behaviour but can do so in far more milder manner. Cocktail party circuits are abuzz with phrases of praise for ‘reforms-oriented’ Chief Ministers who pulls up civil servants for delay in approval of land, project licenses, ‘tough-minded’ politicians who harass and harangue corrupt officials in the glare of TV!!! Need some brakes for our penchant for MACHTPOLITIK!!!

The lesson for the ones with more romantic ideals of revolutionary change: One need not pursue a revolutionary ideology with raised fists and perpetual visage of glowing anger and bitterness but with genteel dignity. Surely the systemic corruption needs to be addressed but lets not make it the excuse of accepting a belligerent temperament and vituperative speeches in our leaders. Let not have Honesty and Transparency an excuse for impolite behaviour. Agreed we need to attend to the growing urban problems but lets not indulge in constant yearning for action with scant tolerance for mellowed thoughtful speeches.
At the end of the day most of Bengal and India united in paying generous compliments to the appeal of a charismatic and compelling leader like Jyoti Basu.

Interestingly I learnt that in his electoral campaigns Mr. Jyoti Basu never indulged in populist stunts like touching and shaking hands with the electorates yet he addressed large rallies. His speeches were measured, logical, one can’t deny the problems of poor he wished to cure, poignant, even not high-pitched and one will miss such ‘balanced’ political rallies where the decibels and rhetoric is not arousing. Perhaps his personal balance in pursuing the political ideology with a broad spectrum of social actors, some of whose interests were in conflict with the politics of Left, never indulging in virulent witch-hunt towards the opponents is what made him so compelling and charismatic. Industrialists and large landed gentry did carry on with their lives in relative peace in the posh suburbs of Kolkata, there were no radical, revolutionary-style destruction of bourgeoisie property and lives like in other parts of the communist world.


Quite often we ignore the milieu in which politicians operate and assume power, Left arrived in Bengal in a very unpleasant, decadent, circumstances when the entire society was up in flames. Historically there is a clear background for the emergence of Left regime and its sustenance for over three decades in Bengal. Media tired itself of mentioning that West Bengal was higher ranked state in terms of industrial output when Mr. Basu assumed power subsequent to his demise. The chronicles of West Bengal’s industrial and commercial decline is played like a melancholic opera without any in-depth study of the factors at work. Bengali entrepreneurship was in steep decline long before 1977, most of the large family business empires were being sold off or nationalized including Sir Biren Mukherjee’s IISCO. Even today we do not have glaring examples of Bengali-run companies at the national or global level.

This was not an era where we had the mobile global capital and neither India was open to foreign investments which could have compensated for the dearth of domestic capital. Most of the companies active in Bengal were British and some European who were afflicted with troubles in home base with the disappearance of the Empire. If we take a cursory look at rest of India of the late 70s employment and commercial activity were driven largely by the public sector. It would be clichéd to say that public sector investments were driven by political considerations of the parties holding power at the center. West Bengal was not at complete liberty to attract public sector investments with enticing industrial climate given its relationship with the Centre.

Only in the early 90s we witnessed the resurgence of industry on a large scale with foreign Multi-national giants investing in production and outsourcing facilities in India.

Notwithstanding all the external factors, trade union militancy in Bengal is to be highly reprimanded as a factor inhibiting large-scale industrial investments. Left leadership can never be easily pardoned for fostering such a diffident attitude towards industry and work amongst the working class. Trade union militancy was not something which emerged in 1977, the year Mr. Basu was sworn in as Chief Minister, but built up gradually over the pervious decades. Admittedly Mr. Basu could have contributed more to tempering and revisiting the confrontational ideology of the labour groups given his charismatic hold over the party apparatus. End of the communism across Europe and a discredited ideology globally should have prompted Jyotibabu to spearhead a glasnost in the West Bengal Left establishment. At the end of the day political rallies addressed by Mr. Jyoti Basu never reflected his deep understanding of global realities of market forces and end of revolutionary left politics, which is expected from an erudite leader like him.

Here again we realize that anti-industrial sentiments are not something unique to the Left parties in Bengal, we have watched with horror the recent violent opposition to some of the progressive industrial growth projects by a Left Chief Minister, Mr. Buddhadev Bhattacharya.


While we are discussing political economy of West Bengal, the legacy of Mr. Jyoti Basu would be incomplete without discussing absence of an ideological state-supported parochial regionalism.

Despite the overwhelming presence of prosperous ‘non-Bengali’ business community in Bengal the establishment never stoked the fires of regional parochialism, as evident during the 1984 Sikh riots, nor any communal feelings. Amongst the working class there is a large segment from neighbouring states where again there was a potential for strife like in other states.

In his later years Mr. Jyoti Basu did make a substantial attempt at an industrial revival through projects like Haldia petrochemicals, and speaking to the large base of party cadres in conventions about the need for foreign capital. The results were obviously not that fruitful for the next generation to cherish but still salute the gentleman for his sincere efforts!!

Let's conclude the tribute by summarizing that as far Mr. Basu the personality is concerned, it will be a beacon of inspiration for future generations to come for his gentlemanly conduct and dignity in public life not only in Bengal but across whole of India.

As far his economic and political legacy, the next generation of Bengal’s leaders need to strive vigorously hard to forward some of the progressive reforms set in motion by Mr. Basu. West Bengal needs new breed of leaders who can catapult the state with all its human resources, capability and secular legacy into dizzying height of prosperity and harmony.

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