As the centenary of Jyoti Basu becomes an occasion for reverie, reverence and revivification his bird-like figure wings into view like a sparrow might, onto one’s memory pane.
He was slight, he was spare, he was spruce. Everything about him, from his most deliberately groomed head, his perfectly positioned spectacles, his seamlessly clean-shaven face, his gleaming white kurta, his carefully pleated dhoti, down to his polished black shoes was picture-perfect. His un-wrinkled skin gave Jyotibabu’s face such a sheen of smoothness, his un-crumpled clothes gave his whole bearing such a ‘just-swathed’ look that he seemed more like a Madame Tussaud wax model of Jyotibabu than Jyotibabu himself.
Rajmata Gayatri Devi was present at the Nehru Centre in London when Jyotibabu came there, as chief minister of West Bengal, in the spring of 1993, in a smartly-tailored dark grey galaband suit, to speak on the bicentenary of the Permanent Settlement of Bengal. Two Bengalis, just five years apart in age, both aristocratic, both at home in London, both celebrated as icons in their own style, were under the same roof after I do not know how many long years. “Rajmataji, wouldn’t you like a conversation with Jyotibabu?”, I asked her, as the Centre’s director and their host at a tea that preceded the lecture. “No, thanks”, she replied icily. “I don’t like him and I don’t like his politics”. But before she could move away from the chief minister’s aisle-path, Jyotibabu was there right in front of her. “Oh, namaskar”, the communist leader said, a faint trace of a smile, almost embarrassed of itself, crossing his face as he raised his joined palms. “Namaskar”, the former princess of Cooch Behar, once-queen of Jaipur and star of the Swatantra Party, responded. Frost could not have bitten sharper.
The lecture was memorable for a reason other than what one would expect. Jyotibabu read from a prepared text, slowly, almost haltingly, turning each page with studious deliberation. Cornwallis’ objectives, the East India Company’s priorities, the aims of the zamindars, the long-term effect of the rights that the Settlement created, its complex legacy, the land question today, were all gone into with academic precision. As Jyotibabu concluded, there was an appreciative round of applause. But he did not, at that point, leave the lectern. He closed the folio of papers in his hand and looking up, for the first time, at his audience, said: “You see, I am a politician, not a scholar. We politicians do not have the time to read, to study….We cannot afford to sit down and write scholarly speeches… I have not written the speech that I have just read.” A cloudburst of applause greeted the admission. “Of course”, he added, “I have tried to understand this speech which an academic, a lady, has written for me”. Another round of claps followed and I distinctly recall the Rajmata’s extraordinary face light up in a smile of honest appreciation.
There has always been a wall between politicians of different hues. That is no surprise, given the fact of ideological and policy differences. But in Indian politics today, that wall has not only become stouter but has acquired spikes and hobnails. Not just a separateness but a vicious antipathy divides political opposite numbers. This is because the nature of political intent has coarsened. Adversaries now want to do more than offer an alternative. Defeating is not enough; they want to demean and demolish the opponent. And this desperation leads to manipulation of voters’ minds, their vulnerabilities, their fears. Attempts at manipulating the election process itself is part of the same syndrome. Jyotibabu and Rajmata Gayatri Devi never contested an election against each other. In parts of Calcutta, in the 1960s and 1970s, the princess might well have given the comrade a tough fight and the comrade would have given the princess a clean one. By the 1980s and 1990s, though, I do not doubt that every cadre-led campaign of the communist veteran would have ended in an automatic win.
There used to be something called decency in Indian politics. Now that word is synonymous with naiveté. Decency defers to cleverness. And every form of coarsening follows from this.
Having written about Jyotibabu, I must refer to his comrade-in-arms though from a cognate, not the same party, Professor Hiren Mookherjee, the ninth anniversary of whose death occurs later this month. Hirenbabu personified all that was decent in politics. There was much in common between him and Jyotibabu, decency being the foremost. But with one difference. Hirenbabu had a sense of fun, Jyotibabu had none. I once began a letter to Hirenbabu with the traditional ‘Pujya Hirenbabu’. I was not sure whether the veteran Marxist leader would like that worshipful form of address. Came the reply written in his distinctive hand: “You were right in guessing that I do not take kindly to being addressed as ‘Pujya’, but of course I am grateful for the generosity behind it.”
“I have been in my own way a Gandhi devotee, in spite of my unrepentant communism,” he said. “I present to you from out of my memory, a piece of rhyme in The New Statesman and Nation (circa 1935) by ‘Sagittarius’: “De Valera and his Green Shirts with their back to the wall, Hitler with his Brown Shirts riding for a fall, Mussolini with his Black Shirts lording over it all, Three Cheers for Mahatma Gandhi with no shirt at all!.”
“I am sure you have inherited something of his sense of fun,” Hirenbabu continued, “didn’t he order once a new set of false teeth while starting on a ‘fast unto death’!” My not having inherited a sense of fun (or indeed anything else) from the Mahatma did not prevent me from doubling up in laughter at that anecdote.
I wonder if Indian politics will ever retrieve from exile, decency of which a sense of pure fun — often directed at one’s own self — is so crucial a part.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor
The views expressed by the author are personals