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Ashok Mitra was a committed Marxist intellectual of rare calibre

As finance minister of the Left Front government in West Bengal, he was one of the key architects of alternative policies, which had ushered progressive transformation in rural Bengal.

kolkata Updated: May 02, 2018 07:26 IST
Prasenjit Bose
Prasenjit Bose
Ashok Mitra (1928-2018).
Ashok Mitra (1928-2018).

With the passing away of Dr Ashok Mitra at 90, an era has come to an end. He was sworn in as the finance minister of the first Left Front government in Bengal, which took office in 1977. As finance minister of the LF government, he was one of the key architects of the alternative policies, which had ushered progressive transformation in rural Bengal.

Alongside chief minister Jyoti Basu, he was also a prime mover of the demand for restructuring Centre-state relations and devolution of greater financial powers to the states, which had united the non-Congress state governments in the 1980s and led to the formation of the Sarkaria Commission.

The imprint of his economic ideas can be seen in all progressive endeavours even today, and would continue to inspire future generations. Ashok Mitra belonged to the first generation of post-independence Indian economists who were involved with the planning process.

A brilliant political economist, he was appointed as the chairperson of the CACP in the late 1960s and then rose to become the chief economic advisor to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi — a position which he relinquished in protest against the repression unleashed by the Congress government in Bengal in 1972. It was this clear conscience and firm backbone which set Ashok Mitra apart from most others of his generation.

A committed Marxist intellectual of rare calibre, Mitra strode the worlds of political economy and literature with equal elan. While his “Terms of Trade and Class Relations” remains to be a classic of political economy, he also received the Sahitya Academy award for his contributions to Bengali literature.

His celebrated column — Calcutta Diary — which he wrote as “AM” in the Economic and Political Weekly from its inception and his memoirs “Apila Chapila” (English version: “A Prattler’s Tale: Bengal, Marxism, Governance”) are literary treasures, which have chronicled India’s journey from the freedom struggle to the post-independence decades — through the many upheavals, twists and turns — from an unapologetically radical perspective.

They are also must reads for those who want to understand the emergence of the Left in Bengal and its eventual decline. Ashok Mitra remained unwavering in his partisanship towards the poor and exploited people till his last breath and never gave up on his dream for a classless society.

He chose to swim against the tide of neoliberalism, even when it was embraced by many among his friends and peers. He never forgave the communal politics which led to the partition of Bengal and forced millions like him to live away from their birthplace.

He disliked yesmen. He never hesitated to speak truth to the powers that be. But the firmness of Ashok Mitra’s belief in the Marxist cause was also combined with a tender heart, which endeared him even to his opponents and critics.

During the last few years, he founded and edited a Bengali magazine “Arekrakam”, through which he relentlessly tried to persuade the mainstream Left in India to correct its deviant ways and listen to the voices of dissent.

For all those who are willing to stand by the Left in these difficult times and fight for its renewal and revival, Ashok Mitra has left behind an inspiring legacy.

(The writer is a Kolkata-based Left economist and activist)
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