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Remembering Jyoti Basu: The Gentle But Tough Leader

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“There is nothing more valuable in life than the love of the people. We are always ready to sacrifice our lives for a greater cause. When the time comes, we should not be found wanting. Our lives should not be spent idling away our time. There should not be any regrets in having led a life of disuse. That has always been my bottom line.” – Jyoti Basu Memoirs – A Political Autobiography

West Bengal desperately needs charismatic and respected political leader who can lead a coherent policy-based opposition against the Trinamool Congress and the BJP. In the history of West Bengal, only one man would have qualified for this role and that person would have been none other than Comrade Jyoti Basu. A sophisticated and educated man, who had studied law in Britain, and had wished to join the Communist Party of Great Britain. He came back to India and worked with trade unions and confronted state repression and steadily rose to become one of the top leaders of the CPI(M).

He earned the distinction of being the longest-serving chief minister (23 years) of an Indian state. Today, January 17, 2017, marks Jyoti Basu’s 7th death anniversary. Jyoti Basu’s MLAs had constantly sought an alternative road to development and stressed on raising the common’s man’s standard of living. The land reform measures and the rural development projects of his administration had constructively changed the quality of life of people living in the rural areas.

Elections to the three-tier panchayat system were held all over West Bengal in 1978 after many years, and from that point on, at regular intervals. The intention of reinforcing the Panchayati Raj was in consonance with Jyoti Basu’s decision that the administration would never again act like a dictator from the CMO, the general population’s representatives at the grassroots level as well, would be included in formulating policies and executing the administration’s projects to pace up development and eradicate the ills that was destroying monetary development and social equity in the rural territories. When India had its literacy rate and Infant Mortality Rate at 65.38% and 42, West Bengal had its at 69.22%.

It would be unfair to compare West Bengal with other Indian states in terms of development. Bengal was a poverty stricken state and had survived two great famines. In the initial years, the Left Front government’s primary purpose was to quicken the pace of agrarian reforms and lift the state’s rural economy from the pitiable condition that it was in. As most of the rural population engaged in agriculture, land reforms were given utmost importance to guarantee financial security and re-establish dignity of the poor and the landless farmers. West Bengal was essentially an agrarian economy. As a result of redistribution of land, the number of people living below poverty line started declining very fast in comparison to other states.

In 1973-74, the number of people below poverty line in rural areas of West Bengal was 73.16%. During 1980-81, in agriculture, the average per capita income was ₹1612.13 which registered an increase and was ₹10636.71 in 2000-2001. Despite the fact that Bengal developed industrially before the independence, the industrial sector suffered later due to the policies of the central government. It took seven years to get the clearance for Bakreshwar Thermal Power Plant and 12 years to get the clearance for the Haldia Petrochemicals project.

Many people confuse the ideology of Marxism as dogma which propagates the equal distribution of wealth. It is to be noted that Marxism is not dogma but pure science! Its application varies from region to region and situation to situation. After the opening up of the market in 1991, Jyoti Basu had no other option but to make full use of opportunities for rapid development. It is also to be remembered that pursuing communist policies in a state of a capitalist country is next to impossible.

A key objective of the Left Front government under Jyoti Basu and the successive ones have been dedicated to decentralised and grass-root democracy. They were the voice of poor people. Unfortunately, the successors of Basu lost touch with people and committed some mistakes in Singur and Nandigram. I recall Jyoti Basu telling Karan Thapar in an interview, “If people don’t want to vote for you, no matter how well-oiled a voting machine you have, you won’t win”. (At 07:30) However, judging the Left Front government on these two incidents is like eating a rotten fruit and blaming the whole tree.

Jyoti Basu’s political agency was not restricted to just being the CM. He was involved in uniting all secular forces of the nation against the negative elements evolving in national politics from the mid-1980s. It was in 1996, when both the Congress and the BJP, failed to gain the numbers to form the government at the Centre that Jyoti Basu was offered the Prime Minister’s position by the non-Congress, non-BJP United Front. Mulayam Singh Yadav had said that he proposed Jyoti Basu’s name for the post with full conviction that the nation would transform into a dynamic state under his authority. Shockingly, the proposition was rejected by the CPI(M) on the premise that the provisions in the party constitution said that the party would never join any government or coalition where it is not in a position to influence the process of policymaking.

Basu later said that it was a “historic blunder” because such an opportunity was not going to come anytime soon. He said, “We thought that even if we last for (just) one year in that coalition, with myself as the Prime Minister and our party joining it, then people would understand what we are all about”. He was not a nationalist but a true internationalist who played a major role in the Non-Aligned Movement and who also had very good relationship with Fidel Castro, Nelson Mandela and Yasser Arafat.

The day before the Babri Masjid incident in 1992, on December 5, when everyone who mattered in Indian politics was aware of what was going to happen the next day, did nothing, Jyoti Basu had exhorted the Union government to deploy the armed forces and spare the mosque at any cost. The advice is significant today when we realise what might have come off it, had it been considered.

Jyoti Basu was, in fact, a gentle, yet tough leader. Once on his visit to Patna, while he ventured out of the railway station with a large number of supporters around him, somebody opened fire from short proximity. The shot touched his finger before killing a party supporter standing behind him. Where any man would have played it safe after such circumstances, Jyoti Basu, the next day, addressed a rally in Patna saying: “We are ready to die, but before embracing death, we can at least say that we have laid our lives for the most important task in this universe which is people’s liberty”.

In 2003, an association called “Gana Darpan” that encourages the donation of body parts after death for research purposes had called Jyoti Basu for the inauguration of a conference on human body donation awareness. As  Brojo Roy, General Secretary of “Gana Darpan” recalled, Jyoti Basu had agreed promptly. Mr Basu told him: “But how can I inaugurate the conference without vowing to donate my body myself? So give me a form.”

Under the Left Front, the venom of communalism had not really gotten an opportunity to spread in Bengal, a state with one of the most astounding minority-majority ratios. The vigil was never-ending, and the crackdown quick and productive. Communalism never got any breathing room. Presently, an unprotected Bengal is fumbling as it watches helplessly how the TMC and the BJP are pushing it towards a communal cliff for their separate disruptive interests.

The RSS had admitted in its recent report that it could not grow as per their expectations during the Left Front regime. But in the past five years, when the state has been under Mamata Banerjee’s control, the RSS has managed to extend its organisational infrastructure and managed to increase the number of their schools.

The Left is doing whatever it can to stop the glide into darkness, but sadly, with popular dismissal, its quality is no longer what it used to be in Bengal.

The political advancement of India’s Left and the reality of the nation’s political scene could have been quite different if the CPI(M) politburo had permitted Basu to take charge as the prime minister. Not every leader has the guts to say, “I’m certainly not a blind follower of IMF and the World Bank, I have some self-respect”. The majority of us may not have respected his ideology. But everyone including his arch rival Advani respected him as a person. No Indian politician today can be compared to Jyoti Basu.

Image source: The India Today Group/Getty Images,  Ryan/Flickr
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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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