18.1.10

Beyond Autumn

The difference between Jyoti Basu alive and Jyoti Basu dead is that the Bengalis will refuse to believe the latter fact after a period of mourning. His statement describing his not being able to take over as Prime Minister as a “historic blunder” has been quoted extensively. We might like to ask whether the blunder was regarding his personal history, that of his party, the Communist Movement in India or of Indian polity.

Being a tall leader who was pretty much at peace – even if he did not make peace with – various ideologies, he was still rooted in West Bengal. To make that jump to New Delhi would have required a sensibility quite unlike the one he possessed.

The term bhadralok is being thrown around a lot and it no doubt applies to him with the caveat that unlike, say, the high-born, genteelness that pervaded a Rabindranath Tagore or a Satyajit Ray, Basuda did muddy his hands in grassroots politics. However, because of his status and less his stature, no one would have had the gumption to implicate him when 35,000 people fled Midnapore, or that in his constituency, Satgachia, 30 kilometers from Kolkata, there were many people who did not get drinking water. It was seen as sheer temerity to suggest that due to the violent incidents West Bengal was becoming Bihar.

Mamata Bannerjee had once accused his government of “deliberately engineering” the floods that caused havoc in the State. It was during his tenure that the lady got beaten up. Was he being sidelined while in power? If so, then what role would he have played at the Centre?

Jyoti Basu must be seen as classic example of a benevolent king who could use his skills in diplomacy to get all factions to come to the table. For that reason primarily, he was the CPI (M)’s showpiece. After decades in office, he had to go along with the politburo’s advice and mouth clich├ęs like, “A Marxist has to continue as long as he breathes.” The sad thing was that he had to justify his tenure after years of being at the helm as an elected representative of the people.

The people of the State looked upon him differently. He might have got caught up in the legend business, but if he wanted to industrialise Bengal he was up against a wall. It had something to do with the touchy Bengali mentality – it loves to make people answerable for every little thing when they are around and the moment they are gone, they turn into heroes and here we are talking about big-time immortality.

Some years ago a ruckus was created because a school text had a hagiographic chapter on Jyoti Basu, referring to him as the new maker of West Bengal. Immediately, an academic sprung out of the woodwork to state that the honour could not be bestowed upon anyone except B.C.Roy. “Why should someone else be forced to wear the mantle?” was the ardent query. This was in the same book that had chapters on Mother Teresa and writer Sukumar Ray.

Has this something to do with the absolute contempt for politicians? Then, did ‘retiring gracefully’ alter Basu’s image? If so, what does it reveal about the people? Even in the strict hierarchical order that Communists follow, it was always about who would replace Basu.

Jyoti Basu was made a pawn in this game. He probably wanted to sit back without worrying over trifles and, perhaps, like any man with an ego, would have liked the occasional consultant status, while enjoying his gin-and-tonic in the evenings. But they killed him with kindness. This is one more Bengali fantasy.

No one talked about the absence of Jyoti Basu’s active participation because the new face of Bengali Communism is really the old. Therefore, his legacy thrived even as he kept himself away.

An episode comes to mind about Malik House in the lanes of what was then Calcutta. It was a huge mansion that was filled with relics and precious items. Anyone could enter the home where people lived. A servant was busy brushing his teeth in the courtyard. In one of the corridors, a man in a pristine white dhoti sat reading the newspaper and occasionally swatting flies. In a cage above the railings was a parakeet that stood quite still. It seemed a travesty to walk on the wooden floors and create any sound. My eyes met those of the owner. He seemed to be in charge and yet so trapped in this large place.

It reminded me of Jyoti Basu then. It reminds me of him even more today.

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