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Will forever last?

I can't claim I knew Jyoti Basu well but my last conversation with him could turn out to be prescient. It happened in 1999. I was visiting his Salt Lake residence in Calcutta to interview him for the BBC. Karan Thapar writes.

columns Updated: Oct 22, 2011 14:32 IST
Karan Thapar

I can't claim I knew Jyoti Basu well but my last conversation with him could turn out to be prescient. It happened in 1999. I was visiting his Salt Lake residence in Calcutta to interview him for the BBC. Once it was over, he asked me to stay on for a chat. Over a delightful cup of aromatic Darjeeling tea — the sort few politicians serve or, even, appreciate — we had a wide-ranging conversation. Part of it, at least, verged on delightful but harmless banter.

"The Left has been in power for 22 years," I said. Who at the time could have predicted it would continue unbroken for another 12? "How long will this last?"

Jyoti Basu's eyes lit up as he pondered over the question. I could detect a hint of humour — or was it mischief? — on his face. He seemed to savour the moment before he replied.

"I should say forever but I won't," he said laughing loudly. "There's no doubt the Left is best for Bengal but I'm not sure if prolonged years in power is the best thing for us."

I was shocked by his candour. But I hesitated to interject. Basu wasn't the sort of man you needed to interrupt because his answer had ended up raising another question. Usually he answered it himself. This was his somewhat enigmatic way of speaking. And, if I'm not mistaken, he enjoyed this linguistic one-upmanship.

"You see, power distances a party from its roots. It also makes politicians complacent and, perhaps, arrogant. And, worst of all, you end up losing contact with ordinary people and real life." No doubt he was saying the obvious but it was, nonetheless, remarkable from a serving chief minister. I have never met another who was so daringly outspoken.

But Basu's answer also stumped me for another reason. Since I did not know him very well — even though this was my third interview — I wasn't sure what to say. But it didn't really matter. Basu wasn't exactly waiting for a response. He soon continued and, once again, his eyes were sparkling. The look of mischief was unmistakeable.

"Of course, it won't happen for a while. But when it does my colleagues won't like it. In fact, most of us won't be ready to admit it's happening. After being at the top you begin to think you will never fall down."

After a bit our conversation wandered off in a different direction. Because his grand-daughter was considering a career in television, Basu was also keen to find about journalism. He had thoughtful probing questions to ask. I happily pontificated about my profession, as I hungrily devoured the delicious shrewsbury biscuits he was serving. Incidentally, how many other politicians offer such delectable pastry?

Recently I realised how right Basu's views might be. Most analysts are convinced that three and a half decades of Left rule are ending but when I put that to Prakash Karat, the general secretary of the CPI(M), I got a stout, if not passionate, denial. "We're going to win Bengal," he insisted. Kerala too, he added.

I guess there's always a possibility the Left might and, more than that, what else could Karat have said? But I can't help recall Basu's decade-old prediction. "Most of us won't be ready to admit it's happening. After being at the top you begin to think you will never fall."

If he'd been alive today, I wonder what Basu would have said?

The views expressed by the author are personal.