A communist with haute bourgeois tastes; a bhadralok with an autocratic streak; a radical who epitomised decades-long grinding status quo, Jyoti Basu was all these things and a bit more. With his death passes an era not only in India’s communist movement but also in Indian politics.
Long before the power of regional satraps became obvious in ‘coalition politics’, Basu knew the virtues of being the Big Fish in a small pond, all the while being a crack swimmer in the Big Sea of national politics. Unlike other veterans of India’s communist movement, he was the master of retrofitting ideology to realpolitik rather than the other way round. If his description of his comrades’ decision to hold him back from prime ministership in 1996 as a “historic blunder” was accurate (Basu as PM would have arguably made the nation address problems like Maoist extremism much before they became critical), then Basu also understood that to be seen as being bigger than the party is to expose one’s hand at a table where keeping the right cards under one’s sleeve is everything.
In a way, over the duration of his long innings, Basu encapsulated the archetypal pre-liberalisation grand politician. As a firebrand communist leader returned from Britain, he was the Nehruvian-communist, a man whom the masses pinned their hopes on even as the middle-class and intelligentsia recognised speaking in their dignified language. As Deputy Chief Minister of the United Front government in West Bengal in the late 60s, he understood that to be in power was a different ball game from being an anti-establishment dhoti-kurta-clad Che figure. Becoming the chief minister in 1977 solidified this knowledge. But the rules of the game were clear right from the start: hold on to power by whatever means and everything else can follow.
Very little, however, followed. For the next two decades, even as Basu rose to statesman-like status, especially as a model secular leader with a mass support base, the communist state he governed in his regime’s trademark ‘good cop-bad cop’ style slid down the economic and development poles. Cadres were allowed to rule the state by proxy — keeping the visible capital of Calcutta under the warm, fuzzy lights of liberal and cultured socialism that kept prying eyes away from the successful experiment of making the bureaucracy, police and governance one with the party. When there were demands for change in West Bengal in the late 90s, Basu short-circuited the opposition by ushering a change himself: stepping down in 2000 as India’s longest-ruling CM for “health reasons” and foisting his protégé Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee as his successor.
Regardless of how he has left the state he was so long in charge of and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) of which he remained the capo di tutti capi till his end, Jyoti Basu was much more than the sum of his parts. Even if these parts didn’t always add up to form the towering leader of modern India that he undoubtedly was.