We who grew up as children in Jyoti’s Bengal, called him Jyoti ‘The Candlelight’ Basu. We do not remember using electric lights during the endless night which lasted 23 years. I say this because I lived there from my birth in 1965 to middle age in 1995, and endured 18 years of his misrule.
There was not a single day when we could sit or study or sleep in peace. I remember sleepless mornings and nights in the hot summers, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year — he merely sipped his scotch on the rocks in air conditioned comfort when we had 14-hour power cuts. Yes sir, he was a pucca sahib. When he was asked in the late Sixties why West Bengal was not investing more in the power sector, he famously replied “What shall we do with more power, eat it?” The great man thought that the hungry and the dispossessed whom he ruled would eat it. He went on to eat crow, but let’s move on.
Factories were under 24X7 lockouts, and unemployment levels rose faster than the hemlines of Kingfisher’s airhostesses, but guess what — he went on summer trips to the UK every year ‘to attract foreign investment’. The only things that happened with sickening regularity were gheraos, strikes and processions. Gokhale’s “What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow” became Basu’s “What India does today, Bengal ain’t gonna do in my lifetime”.
The other thing I recall vividly is violence, the blood curdling violence his goons would unleash at the slightest pretext, in the hallowed tradition of Stalin and Mao and Pol Pot. I remember in 1982, 17 Anand Margis (including a nun) were battered to death by his goons in broad daylight. There was blood on the streets. I saw the blood. We also know how his goons cracked Mamata Banerjee’s skull when she led a procession against his misrule. The deputy commissioner of police in the Port area (Mehta) was hacked to death by smugglers led by one Idris Mian in Kidderpore, and they were shielded by Kalimuddin Shams, the deputy speaker. Within a week, Idris was caught, and beaten to death in the Lalbazar police lock-up. Nothing ever happened to Shams.
Earlier, when he was the leader of the opposition, his goons had gone on a rampage burning trams and buses when fares were raised by two paise. And this was in Calcutta. In the villages, the slightest opposition to the party line meant certain loss of a few body parts if you were lucky, or death if you weren’t. The CPI(M)-RSS clashes in Kannur were closely covered in the Press, and gained national notoriety. No one thought it fit to report on what this wolf in sheep’s clothing had been doing in Bengal all these years. And the best part was that this bhadralok managed to convey a sense of decency when he spoke in his quaint British-accented English about the rights of the working classes, and how his heart bled for them all.
The Nandigram incidents only highlighted this aspect of his murderous legacy, and poor old Buddhadeb carried the can for the murder and mayhem that followed. He was the man who said ‘Erom to hoye thake’ (these things keep happening) when a woman was gang raped in broad daylight (Bantala incident) by his goons.
With one fell stroke, he took Bengal back by at least a decade in the field of education by banning the study of English in government schools while he himself had had the benefit of an English education — Middle temple, old chap, you know how it is.
He ensured that his industrialist son Chandan’s biscuit factories never had strikes while the rest of Waste Bengal went from disorder to chaos to total pandemonium. He, the self-anointed leader of the homeless, the oppressed, the depressed, the dispossessed, and pretty much everyone else, had nothing to say when his son married a close relative of a London-based capitalist. Grandpa Jyoti did not oppose his grandchildren attending the international school (we can’t mix with the natives, you know, old chap) in Calcutta. He was forced to repeal his anti-English decision because even the party apparatchiks had started to question this — they too began sending their children to ‘Inglis mediaam’ schools.
When Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee (he was information minister then) stated publicly that the CPI(M) had become a haven of thugs and goons Basu awarded him the Order of the Red Boot, Second Class. It was a much-chastened Buddhadeb who came back in sackcloth and ashes a couple of years later.
Basu craved power like a drunkard craves booze, or to use a modern day metaphor, like N D Tiwari craved nubile women. Nothing wrong fundamentally, I suppose, to crave something you like, but I say this because of the tendency of today’s leading newspapers to paint Jyoti Basu as a selfless man of the highest probity who was ever ready to give up his chair for the sake of principles, etc.
Despite all his cant about secularism and anti-casteism, our hero had only Bhattacharyas and Mukherjees and Gangulys, not to mention Chatterjees and Boses and Sens and other upper castes in his Cabinet. What do you think is happening in Lalgarh today? He continued the policy of exploitation of the tribals and the lower classes by telling them that it was in their best interests to vote CPI(M) — pass the scotch, old chap, and be snappy about it, will you?
It was the (Havana) cigar chomping Pramode Dasgupta, organiser par excellence, who almost single-handedly won the 1977 elections. However, for reasons best known to him, Pramode-da decided to stay out of the government and focus on party work, and handed over the reins to the scotch-swilling bhadralok leader of the dispossessed. I keep talking of scotch and cigars because a box of Havanas or a bottle of Black Label cost more than a week’s wages of those whom these selfless souls purported to lead. When Dasgupta died a sudden death, our Jyoti babu had untrammelled power as he ran both the government and the party. Power corrupted, and absolute power corrupted absolutely.
While the Mulayams and the Lalus rigged the elections on election day, our barrister babu abhorred such crudities. He started the process five years in advance by tampering with the voters’ lists. There wasn’t anyone like T N Seshan in those days, so he could do whatever he liked. Hundreds of thousands of people suddenly found themselves struck off the rolls. The cadre systematically infiltrated every area of the establishment — the teaching fraternity in the primary schools, the colleges, the universities; the lower level judiciary; the panchayats; the lower rung government officers; and yes, the police. The entire government machinery was taken over by the apparatchiks. And so they went from strength to strength while the rest of India watched and congratulated the man who gave a new meaning to the word panchayati raj. And yet, people still say he was a gentleman. By his own admission, “I’m not a gentleman, I’m a communist”.
The great achievements of the communist rule were during the first phase from 1977 to 1982. That was when Operation Barga was rolled out to implement fundamental land reforms. It enabled the tillers of the land to become the owners, but Basu extracted his pound of flesh by conscripting them for The Cause — Napoleon is always right, you see. And yes, the land reforms were the handiwork of Nanigopal Bhattacharya, if I am able to recollect his name correctly. This single operation enabled the CPI(M) to have a hardcore cadre, and with their help, they systematically let loose a reign of terror.
Jyoti babu’s greatest contribution however was to keep the communal passions under control — within about 12 hours of Indira Gandhi’s assassination, he had the anti-Sikh sentiments firmly stamped out. As opposed to states like Tamil Nadu, there was no whipping up of casteist sentiments there, which is how middle class south Indians like us managed to get an engineering (or medical) education virtually free, and that too outside our home state.
How, then, did Grandpa Jyoti manage it? Twenty-three years on the trot, and are we to infer that he stayed there because he fed the hungry, clothed the naked, sheltered the homeless and generally spread sweetness and light? He stayed on top because he was more ruthless and cold-blooded than all the Mulayams and the Lalus. Period.
Just like they brought down Stalin’s statue in Russia and Saddam’s in Iraq, the day is not far off when West Bengal casts his entire legacy to where it rightfully belongs — the rubbish heap of history. And the saddest part is that an honest man will be held responsible.