The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Out of chair, out of sync

It’s the voice that has boomed in Bengal for 40-odd years. The difference now is that he speaks sitting in a chair. And, of course, there is the big difference: he no longer sits in the chief minister’s chair that was his for 23 years.

Everything else has remained much the same — for Jyoti Basu and his audience. Everybody waits for him, everything else must merely fill the gap before he arrives. And, when he is at the meeting in the old town of Uttarpara by the Hooghly on his first day out for these elections, there is the familiar stir in the crowd and the old shout of “Comrade Jyoti Basu Lal Salaam”.

But that’s about all for a welcome to Bengal’s big, old leader. No running around of smaller leaders to get close to him, no flowers, no fuss at all. The fill-in speakers quickly wind up their little speeches.

It’s time for Basu to take what evidently is his — the rapt attention of a captive audience. Then the old, familiar voice booms, unmindful of the occasional clapping of hands or a ripple of laughter flowing through the crowd.

The BJP has brought the country to the brink of disaster, he says, and Mamata Banerjee has committed the unforgivable sin of bringing the BJP to Bengal. The Congress’ economic policies, too, have been bad but at least the party isn’t communal like the BJP. How can you call the BJP a “civilised” party if it goes around tearing down mosques and killing innocent Muslims the way it did in Gujarat'

As if the BJP’s communalism wasn’t bad enough, Vajpayee’s government is selling India’s economic self-reliance to the Americans for a song.

Not just the old voice, it’s pretty much the old rhetoric.

The speech brought back the memory of a little conversation only an hour ago with a local while driving to Basu’s meeting along the Kona Expressway. He worked on a part of the Golden Quadrilateral project, which the BJP-wallahs have cleverly renamed PMBJP, short for Prime Minister’s Bharat Joro Pariyojna. Told about Basu’s meeting, the man said with a sigh: “Jyotibabu is Bengal’s biggest leader, but if only we had big projects like this in his time…”

From the Kona Expressway on to the Durgapur Expressway and beyond, along the Golden Quadrilateral’s project sites, a massive renewal seems to be at work. Land prices along the highway are said to be soaring because the locals have heard new industrial ventures would soon come up in the area. “At least that’s what Buddhababu keeps saying,” says the highway acquaintance.

Back at the meeting, Basu is briefly and slightly self-critical. “We may have made mistakes. We, too, have our weaknesses. But we haven’t cheated the people with false promises.”

He hopes the people will understand and send more Leftists from Bengal to the next Lok Sabha to defeat the National Democratic Alliance. The appeal has a special ring in Uttarpara, part of the Serampore constituency which the CPM lost to the Trinamul Congress last time. It has the same ring in many other old, industrial areas in Bengal where closed or sick factories and jobless workers bother Basu’s party.

Basu finishes his speech almost on a farewell note. “I’m old (he turns 90 in July), my illness (colitis) can’t be cured, but as long as I live, I’ll be with you.”

More shouts of “lal salaam” and — rather uncharacteristically for a CPM meeting — of “Long Live Jyoti Basu” and it’s time for him to leave.

Those who support the CPM obviously still love him. One more time he proves that he remains the crowd-puller he’s always been. But it’s difficult to miss a disconnect.

Does Basu quite represent the party and the government that Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee wants them to be —capital-friendly, reformist and anxious to avoid class and other conflicts'

Middle-aged Tapan Dhamali, a local resident who works with a private firm in the Baguiati area in Calcutta, seems to know the change. “Jyotibabu’s times were different. Buddhababu has a very different image and that’s the right thing now.”

On the way back to Calcutta, the route is the old GT Road because it’s much shorter. Ancient places like Bally and Ghusuri look as filthy, congested and generally rundown as ever.

“This world around GT Road belongs to the Bengal of Jyotibabu’s time, Kona and Durgapur Expressways belong to Buddhababu,” a friend from Delhi, and travelling together, quips.

It’s only a casual remark, made half in jest. But more and more now say this in earnest: that Basu seems to be out of sync with Bengal’s — and his own party’s — new political ethos.

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