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The Pragmatic Patriarch

Political instinct was his strength, pragmatism an escape route and inconsistency a shield.

Sankar Ray
Sun, Jul 7 2013

Illustration: Rajat Dey

About Sankar

Sankar Ray is a veteran journalist and a keen observer of Left politics. He was an active member of the CPI for nearly four decades until 2002.


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Jyoti Basu has no parallel in the arena of official communism. His uninterrupted tenure as a ‘Communist Chief Minister’ in an Indian state, under the bourgeois system, for over 23 years is unprecedented.

But Basu whom his party characterised as a ‘legend’ (along with Harkishan Singh Surjeet) was Hegelian in a sarcastic way. The famous German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel wrote, everything is in “constant change excepting the change itself”. Nothing persists in the same condition for ever.

For Basu, consistency was never a virtue while pragmatism was frequently his escape route. Derek Brown in an obit piece in The Guardian inferred, his “devout Socialism was tempered by pragmatism and an unerring political instinct”.

He unhesitatingly embraced embourgeoisment on several instances. During the Emergency, he submitted a memorandum to his predecessor Siddhartha Sankar Ray, the Chief Minister of West Bengal between 1972-77, demanding non-renewal of distribution license to the Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation Ltd (CESC), but himself extended the favour in the very first year of his chief ministership.

A hardliner during the inner-party struggle in the undivided Communist Party of India (CPI) between 1956 and 1962 - Basu was a follower of the Democratic Front line, which culminated in the formation of CPIM as against those toeing the National Front line, who chose to remain with the parent party - he made a volte face in the 1990s by wooing foreign capital, against the Communist Party of India (Marxist) - CPIM’s professed ideological position and stupefying EMS Namboodiripad, M Basavapunnaih and Surjeet, let alone Prakash Karat and even the CITU (CPIM’s trade union front) chief, M K Pandhe.

In 1994, Basu tabled a new industrial policy statement in the West Bengal Legislative Assembly, in line with India’s New Economic Policy of 1991, which in turn was attuned to the International Monetary Fund (IMF)-imposed Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP), after minimal or no consultation within his party and the Left Front. This came at a time when the CPIM and the CPI were doggedly opposing the IMF prescription of imposing neo-liberalism on the welfare-tinged mixed economy of India.

There are several instances reflecting Basu’s ambivalence comprising pragmatism and embourgeoisment. Nonetheless, from his inherent ‘Glasnost’ style startling truth also came out albeit once in a blue moon. On 5 August 1998, speaking on “India in the 21st Century” at the Nehru Centre in London, he said, “ In the 20th Century we witnessed ebbs and flows in human progress. But in this century no democratic order emerged that has accorded the highest regard to the human value-system and socio-economic justice and was fully committed to the abolition of poverty from the society.” (Translated from the Bengali version, published in the Autumn Special of Ganashakti, CPI-M’s Bengali morninger, in 1998).

Basu bluntly admitted that even Soviet Union, China, the Leninist regimes in East Europe too failed to abolish poverty, let alone establishment of a social order which was humane and value-based.

Unwittingly, Basu endorsed the views of Maximillien Rubel, arguably one of the greatest Marxist scholars after David Borisovich Riazanov, that Socialism of Lenin and his followers from Stalin to Mao, was a brazen revision of Marx’s vision of Socialism (synonymous with Communism in Marx, unlike in Lenin) which was fundamentally libertarian. Rubel’s inferences were shared by Anton Pannenkoe, Charles Bettelheim, Paul Mattick and even Paresh Chattopaphyay.

In the second week of November in the same year, in his 30th Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Lecture, “India and the Challenges of the 21st Century, Basu repeated what he said in London, “I, as a Marxist, would like to add that Capitalism is not the ultimate system of human civilisation. In the 21st Century, we look forward to the emergence of a Socialist, non-exploitative and humane society, the first stage of a Communist society. The Socialist society which we envisage will not only ensure changes in the economic and social spheres but also create a new man and establish a higher civilisation where love, sympathy and altruism for fellow human beings reign supreme.”

But his practice varied from his precepts. Abolition of a state which tends to curb liberty and freedom and historically a campaigner of torture was never his motto. Inconsistency was his shield. Nonagenarian Jolly Mohan Kaul, a member of the National Council of (undivided) CPI between1958-62 and the state secretariat member of the party’s West Bengal unit, once conferred during an informal chat: “The model of Jyoti Basu was not that of Marx, Lenin, Ho-chi Minh or Castro, but that of the Congress Chief Minister in West Bengal Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy.”

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