'A sahib in a dhoti', a 'bhadralok', 'a pragmatic patriarch','Communist by training and patrician in temperament, Marxist by conviction and a liberal democrat in practice, mass leader and recluse...' Just what or who was Jyoti basu? As Ashok Mitra
put it in the Telegraph:
After Subhas Chandra Bose, Jyoti Basu was the next idol the Bengali masses created and clung to. The chemistry at work was almost inexplicable, for Jyoti Basu was by nature a shy and reserved individual. That apart, despite his fame as a spellbinding speaker, he abhorred histrionics; his voice never deviated from the normal pitch, the electric current nonetheless hurtled across in waves and a bond got instantly established between the person on the podium and the assembled dishevelled rows of humanity. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Left Front owe an immense deal to this inexplicable phenomenon.
While most obituary writers recognised Jyoti Basu's biggest contribution to be the land reforms and agrarian rights for sharecroppers that he helped usher in via Operation Barga in the early years of his tenure, there were also many controversies that dogged India's longest serving chief minister. Swapan Dasgupta, after characteristically saying, "If you seek his monument, look around," elaborated:
Initially, the party went in for radical land reforms and decentralisation of power to consolidate its hold in the countryside. But after five years, this strategy had run its course—though the political dividends keep flowing to this day. When it came to the revival of manufacturing and the creation of a new services sector, the Chief Minister found himself outvoted inside the party. His government adopted measures such as the abolition of English teaching till class 5 and the politicisation of institutions which set West Bengal behind by decades. Trade union militancy and crippling power cuts led to the decimation of small and medium industry. To the investing classes, Bengal became a big no-no. Its efficiency was limited to the organisation of bandhs.
...He inherited a crumbling edifice and bequeathed a similar structure to his predecessor. He merely prevented the roof from caving in.
Also See: Kanchan Gupta: Destroyer of West Bengal. The Telegraph, Calcutta has a fuller list of the many controversies that dogged his tenure.
He had a reputation among reporters, as Monobina Gupta recalls, for his "exasperatingly short, brusque replies, sometimes even with outright sarcasm or rudeness". Which is why, it was wonderful to also be reminded about about the warm, human side of the man many people accused of being aloof: Barun Ghosh on How Basu saved my job in Telegraph.
Some other articles of note:
Saubhik Chakrabarti in the Indian Express appraises Basu's failures and puts his tenure in perspective:
Basu’s many obit writers, irrespective of their politics, refer to him as a tall and visionary leader who often seemed bigger than the party. CPM’s Vajpayee, as it were.
Here’s the third surprise: Basu was actually CPM’s Advani. He had personality by the spades. But like Advani, Basu couldn’t rise above the party. He didn’t even try. He was very much a part of the party’s political think tank that downgraded real welfare provisioning. He never seemed to recognise the limitations of the CPM-is-Bengal/Bengal-is-CPM mantra. Indeed, he was its showpiece.
Jyoti Basu could have reworked the Bengal CPM model. He had the political heft to do it. The final surprise: he never saw the need.
Sunanda K. Datta-Ray in the Telegraph:
Given Indian class consciousness, villagers and the party’s rank and file were awed by his aloof manner and unseeing, hooded gaze. He seemed born to rule. Westerners, especially the British, loved his unsmiling visage and clipped, monosyllabic replies. Society women swooned over his gallantry. One who wanted her whiskey small at a cocktail party was very taken when Basu intervened, “Don’t worry, they serve it in homeopathic doses in this house!” Such repartee was not expected from an austere Marxist whose government was identified with radical social and economic measures
...He was too sophisticated to discuss land concessions, contracts, loans and licences at social occasions; but they soldered the bond that gave rise to the “Communist Party of India (Marwari)” joke about the CPI(M).
...He sanctioned or turned a blind eye to criminally harsh repression and the use of agents provocateurs. He chose to condone police brutality, often making light of the atrocities reported in the newspaper I edited. “Editor-sahib sees torture everywhere!” he once joked. When I defended my reporter’s eye-witness account he replied that he had asked the police commissioner, who had denied the story. Naturally, the police commissioner would deny a report that indicted his men. Similarly, Basu did little or nothing to prevent the CPI(M) and its allies from sponsoring illegal immigration from Bangladesh. He railed against the Anandabazar group at our last meeting, saying they invented stories about him.
Aditya Nigam in Kafila:
Basu was neither Bonaparte nor Caesar. He was certainly not a ‘heroic’ personality, and not by any means a demagogue. His political appeal came from his ‘ordinariness’. His political speeches in rallies at the Brigade Parade ground, were delivered in simple conversational style, almost sounding like one-to-one conversations. No fire-spouting rhetoric; no big words whose meaning only the converted can understand.
...Many have labelled this style ‘pragmatic’ – a euphemism for the somewhat more uncharitable term ‘opportunist’. That is to say, uncluttered by ‘ideology’. This diagnosis is, interestingly, shared by many. In the eyes of liberals, ‘ideology’ refers to doctrinairism and is essentially negative, whereas to many Marxists, it refers to purity. But for both, Basu’s style of doing politics shuns ideology. In our reckoning, both these readings are completely off the mark. Basu’s politics was certainly uncluttered by ideology but in another sense: there was nothing pre-determined about his responses. It was as if one was ‘thrown’ into a political context where all had to fall back upon was one’s political instincts.
Gopal Krishna Gandhi in the Telegraph:
It was in London, where I was working as director of The Nehru Centre, that I had got to know Jyotibabu. The year was 1993. The Nehru Centre had organized a commemoration of the 200th year of Cornwallis’s Permanent Settlement. Jyotibabu was the chief speaker. His head buried in the text, he read in an unfluctuating timbre and tone from a prepared script. And as he progressed from page to page of the closely typed document I could see many in the audience ‘switching off’. Jyotibabu, too, seemed to realize this for he suddenly stopped midway and, looking up through his spectacles, said, “You can see I am reading this out. It has been written for me by an expert who knows all these things. I do not know all this myself. I am also learning as I read this. You see, for most of my life I have been among the people, with little time to read or study….” The audience burst into applause in appreciation of the candour of this man who had shaped history, while most of the listeners had only read history and some had written on aspects of it.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta in the Indian Express:
Sometimes the true measure of a man is precisely the sense of regret over all that he could have achieved. Many analogies will be used to describe Jyoti Basu. But with the benefit of hindsight he reminds one more of tragic Rajput princes more than anyone else. These are people who built incredible political citadels, often at great personal sacrifice. They were even able to make them impregnable, and often worked with a sense that they were making history. The whirl of events, in the world at large, did not defeat them. But it did render them progressively more on the wrong side of history.
Basu built a magnificent political citadel against two enemies: the Congress centralism of Delhi and the horrendous exploitation of share croppers in Bengal. But while this was enough to keep his party secure in power, it was not enough to prepare his people for the whirlwind changes that India and the world have experienced. But it is a measure of his personal greatness that his contributions to Indian democracy will long survive debates over his ideological fidelity to communism. Some will regret that he was not more Maoist, more ruthless; others will regret that he was not Deng, more thoroughly pragmatist about development. But Indian democracy will be grateful that he remained Jyoti Basu: someone who knew how to consolidate real power, but who did not let it go to his head.