Why history remembers some and not others is never easy to fathom. Pragmatic as he was, Jyoti Basu was apparently not too bothered how — or if — history would remember him. His birth centenary is a time, however, to recall his life and times and what they meant for West Bengal which he ruled for 23 long years. For, much of Bengal today is what he made of it, warts and all. Looking at the state’s current politics and politicians, it is impossible not to be struck by the difference that Basu embodied. He had decency, a sense of proportion and an awareness of one’s limitations that are not easily found in most of today’s leaders. Even those who strongly disliked his party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and its ideological claptrap found Basu an amiable gentleman. This helped him hold together disparate elements in the Left Front. And this was no mean achievement in the days before coalitions came to rule Indian politics. Leftist successes with land reform and panchayats may not have been all his ideas, but he presided over their coming of age in Bengal. What they did to the state’s economy is debatable, but there is little doubt that they went a long way in empowering poor people and deepening democracy.
However, Basu’s failures were too many and too serious for any history to gloss over. And, the consequences of these failures for Bengal are still unfolding. The two areas of public policy in which these failures have been most devastating are education and industry. Himself a product of the Western model of education, in which English played an important part, Basu presided over the dismantling of that system. His government abolished the study of English from primary schools. Its impact has been felt at all levels of education in Bengal. It robbed Bengalis, at least those with university education, of the one advantage that they had long enjoyed under the raj. If a huge majority of the so-called educated class in Bengal today is hopelessly deficient in English, Basu’s reign has much to do with it. The other great damage comparable to the one in education was in the ruination of Bengal’s commerce and industry. Under him, Bengal turned into a wasteland where old industries died and few new ones were born. The jobless generation that threatens Bengal’s economic and social life today is a product of the Basu era’s big failures.
Why didn’t Basu see it coming? Two explanations offer themselves. One, he lacked a vision that could match his popularity. A second one is more important — Basu was, for all his personal appeals, a slave to his party. The only time he criticized the party was when it made the “historic blunder” by not allowing him to be the prime minister in 1996. But in everything else, he let the party have its way. It was only his successor, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, who tried to defy the party and make amends for Basu’s mistakes in both education and industry. But Basu’s Bengal, steeped in the culture of resisting change, rejected Mr Bhattacharjee. It decided to stick to the sterile ways, this time with Mamata Banerjee’s anti-industry, ‘pro-politics’ policies.