The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Communists appear to acquire wisdom only in their old age. But complete honesty eludes them even in the twilight of their lives. Only in his eighties and after a lifelong involvement in the workersí movement, Mr Jyoti Basu has admitted that encouraging militant trade unionism was a mistake. He said, at a meeting organized by the Centre of Indian Trade Unions, that neither he nor Promode Dasgupta had foreseen, in the late Sixties, that gheraoes, strikes, and other extreme forms of trade unionism would take the dangerous shape that they did and thus destroy West Bengalís economy and work culture. Mr Basu is like the doctor who makes a perfect diagnosis after the death of the patient. He also forgets that he was one of the authors of militancy among workers. He was not only an important member of the cabinet in the United Front ministry but also a Citu leader. What is equally important is that during his long tenure as chief minister, Mr Basu did precious little to counter militant and irresponsible trade unionism. Like Rip Van Winkle, he woke up after 20 years and tried to woo back capital to the state. There is a certain amount of disingenuousness in the kind of wisdom that Mr Basu is now displaying by assuming a holier-than-thou posture.

The absence of complete honesty is evident in Mr Basuís refusal, even at this late stage, to disown certain crucial features of trade unionism. It was practically an unwritten rule among left trade unionists that the winning of demands through agitation and protests was better than negotiating with the management across a table. Protests ó in various forms, from go-slows to gate meetings to strikes and violence ó were supposed to further class struggle whereas negotiations highlighted collaboration. There is no admission in Mr Basuís speech that this has been jettisoned. A homily to the workers, telling them to behave responsibly towards the management, is meaningless unless the entire framework that informs labour-management relations is completely overhauled. There is no indication, in Mr Basuís pronouncements, that this is on the cards. Similarly, there is no suggestion that the direct intervention of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in labour relations in individual industrial units will be stopped. Mr Basu is changing only the rhetoric and not the substance.

Mr Basuís lately acquired wisdom may provide him with some amount of personal satisfaction. But it will not make an iota of difference to the future of West Bengal. There is no guarantee that all of Mr Basuís comrades down the line will heed what he has to say and accept that there were major mistakes committed in the past. It has become fashionable among politicians to articulate their ruminations. The prime minister, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, has spoken of his vision of India in his musings. Mr Basu, alas, has no vision after the collapse of communism. He can only speak of past errors. Neither the prime ministerís musings nor Mr Basuís ersatz repentance need be taken seriously.

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