The Bengal Tiger’s Last Roar

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Like his teacher Harold J Laski, departed Comrade Jyoti Basu was a liberal by temperament, writes Shantanu Guha Ray

JYOTI BASU
1914 – 2010
Photo : AP

IT WAS the mid-nineties. Jyoti Basu stood in the foyer of a bungalow overlooking the sprawling Vatika resorts on Delhi’s outskirts. Dwarfed by the imposing vastness of that tastefully decorated living room, the frail frame of West Bengal’s longest serving chief minister seemed to have shrunk even further. Basu was not alone in the room. Tugging annoyingly at his sleeve was his son, Chandan, a small-time, yet powerful Kolkata businessman, seeking his father’s instant approval to acquire a Hummer parked close by.

Basu, just back from one of his numerous failed foreign trips to seek business for his state, looked deeply troubled. For that same evening he was scheduled to address a presser in Kolkata, and he knew the kind of questions that would be flung at him.

And now, on top of all this, was this headache, courtesy son Chandan, in the form of the black-coloured luxury SUV that stood down below, glistening in the pale winter sun. When Chandan persisted, Basu said nothing — just nodded: a sign that the son immediately, and correctly, interpreted as approval. At the time being recalled Basu had already held the helm for 18 uninterrupted years. That there was none to question him, his son knew as well as the rest of the world.

Basu’s overbearing attitude often annoyed the traditionalists and commoners alike. But all this left him unfazed — except when, in 1996, he failed to become PM. He called the miss a “historic blunder”.

Basu was as much at home with the theories of Karl Marx as of British political theorist Harold Joseph Laski, from whom he took private classes. Indeed what George Orwell wrote about Laski could have been said about Basu with equal justice: that he was a socialist by allegiance and a liberal by temperament.

Basu who started out as a legislator in the West Bengal Assembly in the 1940s, encompassed in his 95 years the entire period of Left’s rise and fall in India. “He ushered in the best agro-reforms,” says CPM Politburo member Sitaram Yechury. Agrees Brinda Karat: “He taught me ground-level politics.” For Biman Bose, a confidant, he was India’s only grassroots leader.

Yet, for all his proletarian leanings, Basu lived life king size. All of Kolkata might be plunged in darkness, but not his home in the Hindustan Park neighbourhood. Once he had shifted to his palatial bungalow in Salt Lake, the cops cane-charged a pregnant fox because its howls were disturbing his sleep.

Basu lasted so long only because there was nothing like an Opposition in West Bengal in the years he wielded the whip hand. The farmers were happy with his reforms. And many loved the communal peace that reigned in the state despite some hostile atmosphere in the aftermath of the Advani Rathyatra and Babri demolition.

But investments died, schools dropped English as a subject till Class VI, Burrabazar merchants routinely invested outside Bengal — all in the face of a blaśe Basu. He silently morphed the state’s police force into a brutal brigade that never acted against the CPM’s foot soldiers. Hence, none protested when the police massacred refugees from the erstwhile East Pakistan in Marich Jhapi, CPM goons set ablaze monks of the Ananda Marg in the heart of Kolkata and police killed 13 Congress activists near Writers’ Building. And no one questioned him when deals worth $1.82 billion failed to materialise. He is dead now. •

shantanu@tehelka.com

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