Com. Jyoti Basu—the stalwart of Indian Left-democratic movement passed away on 17th January at 11.47 a.m. A life of relentless struggle and sacrifice has come to halt but his progressive legacies would perhaps make a lasting impact on Leftwing and democratic movement of India. Jyoti Babu sacrificed a life of pleasures and luxuries of his urban upper-middle class upbringings followed by English education in elite institutions like St. Xavier’s School, Presidency College Calcutta and Middle Temple London in 1920s and 1930s. Evidently, he could have easily led a life of aplomb as a barrister but made a voluntary sacrifice for the communist cause. This sacrifice is increasingly becoming rare among the members of Bhadrolok Bengali middle class. Right from his early political life in London, he was engaged in organising Indian students under the banner of Indian League and Indian Majlis. His association with top Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) leaders like Harry Polit, Rajani Palme Dutt, Ben Bradley and Michele Karrit Bradley made him close to the communist ideology. As a student of Harold Laski’s famous lectures during the turbulent times of European fascism, Jyoti Babu inherited clarity of his thought, much indebted to his training within British empiricist tradition, later on witnessed during his eventful political life. Under his leadership, Indian students in London, Cambridge and Oxford formed their own communist groups besides the British Communist Party Historian’s Group centred on those universities, from where eminent Left intellectuals like Christopher Hill, Victor Kiernan, Maurice Dobb, Rodney Hilton, A.L. Morton, Brian Pearce, Eric Hobsbawm, E.P. Thomson and Raphael Samuel share their legacies.
Jyoti Babu’s initial training in communism and political activism in England made him firm in his lifelong commitment to communist politics after his return to India in 1940. The bourgeois prince renounced the plush lifestyle and instead welcomed the life of hardship as an organiser of railway workers, presiding meetings by sitting over ordinary jute mats. In 1946, this extra-ordinary communist leader of India was elected from Railway constituency and thus formally entered the Bengal Provincial Assembly, which he was a prominent member till the end of new millennium. His eventful political life carries the legacies of anti-riot activities in 1946-47 while campaigning for communal harmony, his active participation in Tebhaga movement, his opposition to Black law framed by the Congress government to book political opponents without charges, followed by his arrest on 26th March 1948. After the ban on Communist party was lifted, he played a crucial role in reorganising the party throughout 1950s via electoral mobilisations for 1952 and 1957 general and provincial elections, resisting tram fare rise, teachers’ agitation, urging the people of Bengal to support Goa liberation war and food movement in 1959.
Jyoti Babu was the hero of successfully fighting both reformist/revisionist and ultra-left sectarian tendencies in Indian communist movement throughout 1960s. When scores of party members were raged to retaliate the killings of hundreds of party comrades by Congress led semi-fascist regime in mid-1970s along with frustrated violence of Naxalism, targeting the CPI(M), as a matured leader, Jyoti Babu addressed innumerable public meetings in every nook and corner of the state by requesting the party members, not to retaliate while calling for peace and order from the anarchic breakdown in the sate. Rather getting an opportunity of becoming the Chief Minister of West Bengal in 1977, he initiated the processes of ‘restoration of democracy’, which by his own admission to one of his interviews—was the greatest success of his tenure, even more than land reforms and Panchayati Raj.
During his twenty three years long service as a Chief Minister of West Bengal, the state faced discrimination from successive Congress and BJP led governments. He was a person who had to face insurmountable criticism with strong dismissing attitude from significant sections of middle classes, bourgeois media and the anti-communist opposition about state’s industrial stagnation but he never bulged on his focus from the development of poor people. In an interview to an English channel, he reiterated that his government cannot follow the IMF-World Bank policies but his priority is to take care of state’s poor population. As a communist, he was confident in his silence to a number of baseless allegations while delivering the successful victories of the Left in West Bengal year after year.
His popularity both as an opposition leader and chief of the government is amply reflected in his victorious electoral life spanning five decades. He never personally succumbed defeat in any elections right from 1946-1996. After 2000, when he stepped down as Chief Minister for health reasons, he never contested any election again but served as an elderly advisor to the Indian Left. Even if Com. Jyoti Basu differed with party’s politburo decision not to join the United Front government in 1996, with him as the Prime Minister and still maintained that it was a ‘historic blunder’—as an ideal communist, he accepted the decision of the slim majority of the party. As one of the chief architects of Left movement in Bengal, he regarded the Left Front government as a ‘weapon of struggle’, as ‘platform of struggle’ and ‘friend of the people’. Probably in the present crisis of the Left in Bengal, the party needs to revitalise/revamp the ‘platform of struggle’ that the Left under the leadership of Jyoti Basu was famously known for. The historic experience of the Left in Bengal shows that pro-people policies with Left Front as a ‘weapon of struggle’ has always given richer politico-electoral dividends than when it started playing into the hands of middle class constituencies while overlooking the interests of its basic classes of workers and peasants. Jyoti Babu’s life was marked by unimpeachable struggle and politico-intellectual integrity while giving leadership to united resistance against all sorts of politico-ideological attacks from right reactionaries and ultra-Left sectarians.
The legacy of Jyoti Basu was not to compromise the working class identity of a communist leader in the midst of neoliberal hegemony even after the crisis of international socialism. Even when West Bengal’s new industrial policy of 1994 was formulated, Jyoti Babu always asserted that industrialisation has to be carried out with a sensible and balanced approach and in the terms and conditions of the Left Front government as far as possible and not to be directed by the conditionalities of foreign banks. In an interview with an English news channel, he pointed out that while welcoming technology and investments from outside, we must be selective and not blindly follow the IMF-World Bank prescriptions as those institutions are responsible for financial crisis in South-East Asia and Latin America. He further clarified that economic reforms cannot forget 70% of poor in our country, and in this regard, India should formulate its own economic agenda for self-reliance while ‘standing by its own feet and helping themselves without seeking help from others’. In other words, his vision of industrialisation policy was accountable to the ‘people’—comprising of plebeian groups, who are Left’s basic classes: workers and peasants and not to the whimsical wishes of corporate capital. Indeed, under the leadership of Jyoti Babu, the Left Front has tried to uplift the basic material living conditions of working classes and peasantry. At the grassroots level, Jyoti Basu’s Left regime implemented land reforms and effective institutionalisation of decentralized democracy via Panchayati Raj, which ensured rural empowerment of traditionally oppressed/exploited sections. His government resolved the quotidian problem of electricity shortage in the state. Under his leadership, Bengal became a strong self-reliant agrarian state and made progress towards industrialisation. On the other hand, his government tried to ensure minimum wage for labour, took some concrete initiatives to address the problems of informal sector, and other democratic rights like ‘right to strike’ to safeguard the interests of the working classes and in turn also benefited the marginalized groups and weaker sections. Moreover, his uncompromising approach in fighting communalism while championing the cause of secularism is unquestionable.
Jyoti Babu was the last founding politburo member when CPI(M) came into being in 1964. His eight comrade-in-arms in that nine member founding politburo of CPI(M) have already accepted death. He also witnessed the loss of several comrade-in-arms from British and Indian communist movement. However, death cannot overcome this legendary life of a towering communist leader who stood in solidarity with international political figures like Yasser Arafat and Nelson Mandela and was well known among the international communist movement. Even Leftwing personas like Pete Seeger and Diego Armando Maradona came to Calcutta to meet this grand old man of Indian communist movement. During his last days, his strong fight for life has even surprised death. As a true communist he would be rather immortal with his ideological articulations and political praxis. We would do justice to him only by following his communist ideas and praxis and not turning him into a demigod. We should resist the superficial idolatry and deification of Jyoti Babu, and rather focus to extend the revolutionary legacies that he stood for, as that would be proper appreciation and giving apt respect to a life that would be only immortal if we implement his ideas and practices for emancipatory politics of the poor from the clutches of neoliberal injustices.