‘Gana’ as Jyoti Basu who ruled West Bengal as chief minister for 23 long years from 1977 to 2000, was affectionately known at home, is no more. Undoubtedly a versatile politician whose public life lasted six decades, different people will recall Basu in different ways. His adversaries and friends alike will recall him as a practical communist who even undertook a visit to the US, the arch enemy of his party and its ideology, seeking its investment in his state. The official website of the Left Front government brings out his greatest achievement. It eulogises him as the one who perpetuated Communist control over the state apparatus of West Bengal — an indisputable fact. Understanding how he achieved this feat is critical to know Jyoti Basu as a politician as also his mission.
The State website www.jyotibasu.net says that Jyoti Basu “is known primarily” for “establishing a seemingly indestructible Communist control over some of the levers of the state-level political power in West Bengal”. The official website says that he achieved this by combining “communist extra parliamentary” political tactic with the parliamentary tactic “aimed at establishing indestructible Communist control”. But could ‘indestructible communist’ control be consistent with parliamentary democratic process? No. It could not be. But a re-reading of the official website makes it evident that what it talks of is not democratic, but “Communist”, parliamentary and extra-parliamentary political tactics.
Here is a telling illustration of how ‘the Communist extra parliamentary political tactic’ is different from democratic parliamentary process. In its editorial dated August 6, 2003 written in the context of the unprecedented violence that marked the panchayat polls in the state which the CPI(M) had won, The Statesman newspaper said it was not “the popularity of the Marxists” that was the reason for the marginalisation of the opposition parties in the elections, but, it was the Marxists’ “expertise in fixing elections by violence, intimidation, and by simple expedient of preventing opposition candidates from filing nominations”. The edit concluded: “it is the prescriptive right of the communists to use any method they choose and if it is a wrong or illegal method, the stigma is instantly washed away when they touch it.” The implication is clear. The Marxists never considered it a sin to fix elections by fraud and violence, and if they did it, no stigma would attach to them! The use of this extra parliamentary tactic along with the parliamentary — read electoral — process is the secret of Jyoti Basu’s success in perpetuating communist control over the State apparatus in West Bengal. But more than this achievement, that he did so without being faulted for it speaks volumes about how an acceptable face can make unacceptable things acceptable to the people who count.
Jyoti Basu was the face of Bengali Communism most acceptable to the Bengali Bhadralok. For the British, Bhadralok meant the ‘well-mannered’ Bengali. But, in the dictionary of Indian politics, it would simply mean the upper castes in Bengal. While in rest of India, with the democratic process deepening with each election, the lower castes’ share of power increased, the Marxist controlled West Bengal had virtually kept out the lower castes and denied their due share in power. Surprised? Here is the evidence. In the governments led by Jyoti Basu between 1977 and 1982, “there were even more Brahmins than in the Congress governments, over 35 per cent; the number of Kayasthas (31 per cent) and Vaishyas (23 per cent) was almost the same as in Congress governments”. What was the share of the Scheduled Castes in Jyoti Basu ministry? Believe it — just “1.5 per cent”. If the “inferior ministers — ministers of state and deputy ministers — were left out”, it would be even “lower”. Stunningly, in Basu’s ministry in 1977 and 1982 “there was not a single Scheduled Caste member of the Council of Ministers”. Yes, not a single one despite West Bengal having the highest concentration of Scheduled Caste population in the whole country — almost 24 per cent (Census 1991). These shocking facts have been brought out in a scholarly work that appears in http://www.ambedkar.org/books/tu2.htm.
The message is evident. The transfer of power from Congress to Marxists had actually made it worse for the lower castes. The reason. Jyoti Basu largely represented the traditional Bengal, contrary to the popular notion that he and the likes of him were products of Marxian modernity. His dress and circle of friends readily identified him with the Bengali Bhadralok and endeared him to the media in Bengal dominated by the Bhadralok, which in turn made him inevitable for the party within. Result, Bhadralok actually dominated Bengali politics more under the Marxists than even under the Congress. The website www.jyotibasu.net says that Jyoti Basu was “initially distrustful of parliamentary politics as the politics of the ‘bourgeois talking-shops’”. But that is precisely what his politics substantially ended with. The Bhadralok-led media in Bengal, save exceptions like The Statesman, were understandably comfortable with the tactics of Jyoti Basu government since that preserved the political primacy of the Bhadralok. The national media was content to certify the CPI(M) as secular, which was sufficient to wash off all sins of its extra parliamentary tactics.
The extra parliamentary tactic that Jyoti Basu had bequeathed to the Marxists has sustained them for almost a decade after Basu quit in the year 2000. But things seem to be changing now. Thanks to the aggressive politics of Mamata Bannerjee, the Bengali lower caste political assertion is on the rise. The southern states witnessed such assertion in 1950s and the northern states, much later, in 1990s. But, thanks to Marxist — read Bhadralok — control over West Bengal politics, lower caste assertion has been delayed for almost half a century and has not taken off even today in the State. With the Marxists beginning to falter, the national media too has begun pointing to the Bhadralok character of Marxism in West Bengal which it would not do a day earlier. Analysing the Nandigram issue in Indian Express (March 20, 2007) Yogendra Yadav, a well-known political analyst wrote: “Nandigram did not surprise me…….. In West Bengal, the proportion of upper castes increased in the state assembly after the Left Front came to power. A coincidence? Not if you calculate the caste composition of successive Left Front ministries: About two-thirds of the ministers come from the top three jatis (Brahman, Boddis, Kayasthas)”. Yet, thanks to the very media’s indulgence, Jyoti Basu was not perceived as a traditional Bhadralok politician who did not share power with the lower castes, but, as a Marxian modernist.
But the one area where Jyoti Basu combined the parliamentary and extra parliamentary tactics to keep the lower sections of society satisfied was land reform. Thus, even as Jyoti Basu reserved state power for the Bhadralok, he also ensured that legislative land reforms were supported by extra legislative abrogation of land by the communists for distribution. Thus, Basu secured land for the lower castes but reserved power for the upper castes — a trade-off that retained the Bhadralok primacy in power politics, and also won rural Bengal for the CPI(M). But ironically, this is precisely where the Trinamool Congress is challenging the Marxists. How? The very land, distributing which the CPI(M) became the ideological darling of the people, has now become its nemesis as the CPI(M) forcibly took it back from the people in Singur and Nandigram to give it to the ideological enemies of the party.
But undoubtedly Jyoti Basu knew the art of building and wielding power within, and without altering, the existing social architecture. He was a practical politician, not an idealist nor a statesman. But despite ruling the state of West Bengal for 23 long years Jyoti Basu himself died as an unhappy man because when other parties wanted him as the prime minister of the country in 1996, it was his party which prevented him. Expressing his frustration, not once but twice, Jyoti Basu said that his party’s decision to veto his elevation to the highest political office was a “Himalayan Blunder”. Yet, till now there is no explanation from his party as to why it denied him the high office when the dream of any political party would be to see one of its leaders as the prime minister. The mystique veto of the CPI(M) against its own most popular leader makes Jyoti Basu unique. Thus ends the political saga of Jyoti Basu who made his party acceptable to Bengal but found himself unacceptable to his own party, to lead India!
( S Gurumurthy is a well-known commentator on political and economic issues. E-mail: email@example.com)