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Basu, the man who could have made history

Manmohan Singh called him the best prime minister India never had, referring to an episode Basu never forgave or forgot, writes Sunanda K. Datta-Ray.

india Updated: Jan 18, 2010 00:21 IST

Among the many images Jyoti Basu conjures up for me is the irreverent one of a party at the Tollygunge Club and its British manager’s voice admonishing the barman: “Abdar, Jyoti babu ka daab-vodka kyoon nahi laya (why haven’t you brought Jyoti babu’s vodka in green coconut)?”

Given customary political posturing, Basu’s candour had to be admired. He joked about Maneka Gandhi’s attempt to embarrass him by publishing a picture of him dancing at the Navy Ball. One wondered, though, if this insouciance did not suggest a disregard for ordinary Bengali sensibilities.

Inevitably, he outlived the legend he became in his lifetime.

The legend rested on two nebulous factors: the public perception was of a stern leader born to rule. The hoi polloi saw him as a sahib in a dhoti — he could have walked into the old Indian Civil Service.

Those who came into contact with Basu were impressed by his wit and ability to charm.

Manmohan Singh called him the best prime minister India never had, referring to an episode Basu never forgave or forgot.

Some claim he regretted the “historic blunder” of 1996 (when his party refused to make him prime minister of a United Front government at the Centre) because it killed the prospect of introducing Marxism at the central level. It is more likely that Basu could not get over the disappointment of a glittering, and unexpected, prize being dangled before
him and then being snatched away.

No government could have started off with greater promise than the coalition (United Front) in which Ajoy Mukherjee’s Gandhian purity was expected to temper Basu’s revolutionary zeal to usher in an ideal society.

Calcutta (now Kolkata) bubbled exultantly on March 2, 1967 when Padmaja Naidu swore in the state’s first non-Congress ministry. The euphoria was not to last. If Dharma Vira’s arrival (as governor) only two months later sounded the death knell of hope, the saintly Mukherjee and the obdurate Basu were equally responsible for the chaos that engulfed West Bengal.

Either Basu could not control his cadres or he was more reckless than his terse speech, brisk movements and air of confidence indicated.

Many journalists knew him much better than I did. Our first encounter was in 1970 when I interviewed him in his dusty flat for a magazine in London. I had just returned from a stint in England.

Basu said graciously he used to read my despatches from London and asked when I was going back. It was my distinct impression that his face fell a little when I said I wasn’t. I had returned home to stay.

When the article appeared — I don’t know how he got hold of the magazine — he sent someone round with it to say I had misunderstood some of his views. He telephoned on another occasion to complain that an English journalist I had introduced to him had dismissed the CPI-M’s Darjeeling district committee as “the Chinesey-looking types surrounding” him. Worse, a mortified Basu protested he was in his usual dhoti, not “in a sarong” as the Englishman had written.

He telephoned again when my paper published extracts from Mole in the Crown in which British ICS officer Michael Carritt disclosed his secret flirtation with India’s Communist Party (in the thirties) on behalf of the Communist Party of Great Britain. “We were in the same cell,” Basu exclaimed, savouring memories of his initiation into Communism in London.

Like Indira Gandhi, he was intensely interested in British coverage. By extension, he also took pleasure in the weekly column I wrote in those days for an Australian newspaper.

The self-evident Anglophilism prompted me to flippancy as a member under his stewardship of a committee to consider a new name for West Bengal. The official favourite was ‘Bangla’. My suggestion was merely to drop the West.

If the chief minister could be “Mr Basu”, I argued, there was no reason to de-anglicise Bengal.

He gave one of his wintry smiles.

My editorship (of The Statesman) disappointed him. My predecessor had worshipped him for social reasons. He expected more from me. First, because of our early exchanges about things English. Secondly and more pertinently, he confided in a common friend that he could not understand how “Ronu Gupta’s nephew could be so anti-Left”.

But Ronu Gupta of the ICS, a former chief secretary, was his personal friend, not political comrade. Basu did not recognise the distinction. He also did not accept that ideology or friendship had nothing to do with my inability as editor to overlook the effects of decades of unchallenged Marxist rule.

Unaware of the person, posterity will judge him by the record. He will be remembered for the land reforms he initiated but also for the neglect and disappearance of many institutions (like the Haringhata farm) that Bidhan Chandra Roy tried to create.

The author is a former editor of The Statesman.