If Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee is the latest poster boy of the Left, Jyoti Basu remains its biggest canvas of success. He is the wise old man with a solution for every problem, be it the Singur crisis or rift within the Front.
After the Left Front’s thumping victory in 1977, Basu ushered in an order that would make its support base stronger and help win elections. On the very first day after taking oath, he announced that the government would decentralise power.
Basu aggressively pursued land reforms, taking the cue from a 1974 Congress legislation by then land revenue minister Gurupada Khan to protect the rights of sharecroppers. The initiative benefited 2.3 million farmers and 11 lakh acres were distributed among them. Operation Barga gave peasants the right to plough land. The implementation of Panchayati Raj and regular elections since 1978 earned villagers a political voice.
Much criticised for his failure to draw investments, Basu made intelligent manoeuvrings to shape the industrial scenario we see today. He mooted Haldia Petrochemicals way back in 1978 but did not get enough support from the Centre. But in 1985, the Left government entered into a joint venture in Haldia Petrochemicals, indicating the first shift towards industrialisation. Basu’s new ventures were questioned, just as Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s are now. But Basu’s pragmatism turned the tide in his favour.
Another milestone came on September 23, 1994, when Basu presented before the Assembly a statement on the industrial policy. The Congress had boycotted the session, calling a bandh, and the policy was passed unopposed. Neither the party nor the Front partners had been taken into confidence, but Basu argued that it was a statement on the policy and not the policy.
There was reason to hurry though — a Confederation of Indian Industry summit was coming up in a few days where Basu was to showcase his intentions before then Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao and foreign delegates. The shift of focus from agrarian reforms to industrialisation was complete.
When the veteran leader decided to quit Writers’ Buildings on November 6, 2000, he left 70 lakh registered unemployed youths groping in the dark. There were not many industrialists willing to invest in Bengal. In some rural areas, daily-wage earners were willing to work for a pay as meagre as Rs 25.
Yet, the barrister who never practised law remains the chief architect of modern Bengal, his failures overshadowed by his political stature and pragmatism. In some ways, he did not govern but ruled with an iron hand, bypassing critics and comrades.