About one million people turned out at Jyoti Basu’s State funeral, and some Left leaders read it as a sign that the last surviving Marxist government in the world will not be history after the West Bengal elections next year. But they were completely wrong. The crowds had come to pay their respects to Basu the patriarch, not to demonstrate their support for his party.
The Left suffers from the peculiar delusion that the party is greater than the individual, that the ‘apparat’ eclipses mere humans. Similarly, it believes that the party’s needs eclipse all competing interests. Basu fell victim to this delusion in 1996, when he was consensus candidate for prime minister of the United Front coalition government. The CPI(M) politburo nixed it, believing that his work in West Bengal was more important. The post went to the somnolent H.D. Deve Gowda instead, whose government flunked out in less than a year.
Coalition politics was then in bad odour because of unfortunate precedents. But we now know that coalitions are more responsive and responsible than monolithic governments, where power is monopolised by the few. Had Basu formed the government in 1996, he would have brought to bear the experience of running West Bengal’s Left Front coalition for 20 years. And the modern national politics of consensus could have been established a decade earlier. Unfortunately, the politburo put party interest before the national interest.
Basu in West Bengal was the reason why the politburo in Delhi could stride the national political landscape so masterfully. While his colleagues in Kerala had to learn to ride the seesaw of anti-incumbency, Basu established a rock-steady alliance which has held power unchallenged for over three decades. His brand of politics was marked by a rare humanity and an ability to translate high policy into terms which were easily understood and accepted.
A strong believer in equity and empowerment, Basu piloted radical agrarian reform and promoted local self-government. At least two lakh farmers have committed suicide in the last decade, but India still does not have a coherent agrarian reform policy. But Basu’s government had launched Operation Barga in 1978 to secure rural income guarantees. Rajiv Gandhi is celebrated for foregrounding panchayati raj institutions, but Basu had empowered local self-government long before him.
Basu will be remembered for trying to create a decent society. But while his career represented all that is humane about the Left, the conscience-keeper of Indian politics, it also illustrated what is deplorable about it. Under his stewardship, Kolkata — once the industrial and commercial hub of the east — was reduced to an industrial wasteland as business fled labour unrest. Many of the Left’s leaders had earned their spurs in labour politics — Basu himself headed a railway union — but in West Bengal, it turned into rebellion without a cause. And as the craziness at Singur and Nandigram showed, even the new Left, desperate for investment, doesn’t understand business.
The million people who attended the State funeral had come to bid farewell to Jyoti Basu the reformer. But next year, most of them will vote against the degeneration in his party’s political culture in recent times. And with the passing of its tallest statesman, the Left cannot remain a kingmaker in national politics.
Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine
The views expressed by the author are personal