The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Old soldiers are still needed in moments of acute crisis

This week the Left Front regime in West Bengal completes 30 years of uninterrupted existence. It is a record without parallel in the annals of multi-party democratic systems, particularly for a political formation adhering to a leftist ideology. Frustrated opponents have every now and then raised some hullabaloo about skulduggery in the successive elections the front has won. Partly in response to such complaints, the Election Commission had held last year’s poll in the state under the most stringent arrangements. To no avail; the Left Front’s triumph in 2006 was even more resounding than on some of the previous occasions. Why not admit it, it is approval by the people of the front’s policies and programmes which explains the longevity of its tenure. That is however not the entire story. An individual, because of the abundance of his wisdom as well as his imagination and practical sense, was, more than anybody else, in large measure responsible for the Left Front’s reaching the pinnacle of glory it reached. That individual — is it not superfluous to add — is Jyoti Basu.

When Jyoti Basu was sworn in as chief minister for the first time on June 21, 1977, four others took the ministerial oath of office along with him. Of that quartet, three have already shuffled off this mortal coil; the writer of this column is the only one still surviving. He seeks forgiveness for using the occasion to offer some homage to the grand patriarch he was privileged to be a colleague of.

The strength the Left Front acquired over the years was mainly on account of a number of crucial decisions it took immediately on entering office. These include land reforms along with legislation for enforcing tenurial rights and ceiling on land holdings, establishment of a three-tier panchayat system with comprehensive decentralization of administrative power, and devolution — by stages — of one-half of the state’s developmental outlay to the panchayati structure. These measures categorically shifted the balance of power in West Bengal’s countryside in favour of the Left Front.

A single piece of statistic should convince even the most ardent scoffers of the enormity of the transformation Jyoti Basu’s stewardship brought about: of the total quantum of arable land redistributed in the country since independence, more than one-half has taken place in West Bengal. The rural poor, once they switch their loyalty, stay switched till as long as, through inadvertence or otherwise, their susceptibilities are not deeply hurt.

Two other major achievements of the front are not usually mentioned in public discussions; they have nonetheless contributed significantly towards widening and deepening its mass base. During the first three tenures of the Left Front government, by far the largest allocation from the state budget was for the power sector. The state was a vast stretch of darkness in 1977; the overall power shortage exceeded 1,500 megawatts. That picture was totally altered by the late Nineties and West Bengal emerged as one of the few states in a position to assure round-the-year supply of power to aspiring industrialists. Those who believe that the recent rush of tycoons to invest in West Bengal is because of the shedding of orthodox ideology on the part of the state administration are barking up the wrong tree.

Another misconception concerns the supposedly gross error committed by the Left Front government in the Eighties in adopting an overly combative attitude towards the Centre and organizing an aggressive campaign for restructuring Centre-state relations. Such aggression, the argument goes, alienated the Centre and thereby held back West Bengal’s development which could have taken place with its munificence. Quite on the contrary, it was precisely the campaign for realigning federal relations, so effectively led by Jyoti Basu, which succeeded in curbing the authoritarian mindset in New Delhi and led to the rapid emergence of diverse regional forces reflecting the moods and aspirations of nationality, groups that jointly constitute this great nation. West Bengal’s temporary inconvenience thus contributed to added welfare for all states. That regional emotions have tended to get shunted off on to wrong rails — for example, rise in factionalism based on caste alignments — could well be regarded as only a passing phase. Once the nation’s poor, inhabiting the far-flung nooks and corners of the country, go through the learning curve, they are bound to get wise to the primacy of economic issues in their life and living.

Close associates of the stature of Benoy Chowdhury were around to offer him counsel, but whether it was land reforms or enthronement of the panchayati system or expansion of power capacity or the battle to wrest greater prerogatives for the states, Jyoti Basu was always there at the helm. A man possessing an extraordinary degree of common sense, he would be quick to go to the heart of the matter, whatever it was. Given by instinct to an economy of expression, he also knew the art of delegation almost to perfection. Add to all this the instant communion he could establish in all seasons with ordinary men and women at all levels in both town and country, a chemistry whose mystery was, and remains, unfathomable.

What perhaps demands equal consideration is his uncanny ability to hold the Left Front together. Each party or group within the front, while it subscribes to a leftist ideology of some description or other, was not immune to the bane of middle-class subjectivity. Basu knew how to take care of the problem. Endowed with unsurpassed civilization, he had time for, and would listen to, everyone. He reserved his famous sarcasm only for small intimate groups — or for big public rallies, where a million would throng and hang on to his words.

Some candour is called for at this point. The bulk of the media nurtured a cerebral dislike for the Left. Since Jyoti Basu was implementing a quintessentially Left programme, he was anathema to them. They thought their kingdom had arrived once a relatively inexperienced young leadership took charge of the state administration after he chose to withdraw from the scene on account of advancing age. The purposive denigration of Jyoti Basu’s place in history and the corresponding process of bolstering up the image of his successor are currently having a boomerang effect. There is that epigram about someone having brains, but it has gone to his head. What has happened in West Bengal is slightly different: it is vacuous back-slapping — inducing mulishness of a certain order — that has gone to the head, and ideology relegated to the back burner. The consequence, as exemplified by Singur and Nandigram, has been horrid. The blind surrender to neo-liberal ideas has at the same time been responsible for the infiltration into party ranks of elements whose single capital asset is hauteur, as also of opportunists with their eye on the main chance. The number of those belonging to such species may be relatively small, but they have given a bad name to the party and to the Left movement.

The media are now being forced to swallow their own spittle. The Left Front government is in the throes of an excruciatingly difficult experience, the most difficult one since its inception. It is once again Jyoti Basu, formally in retirement for more than a quinquennium, who has felt it his duty to step out and try to rescue the party’s young collies from the mess they have created for themselves. Old soldiers cannot afford to face away; they are still needed in moments of acute crisis.

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