A friendship to cherish

Ashok Mitra's relationship to the CPI(M) was a fascinating aspect of his life

By Prabhat Patnaik
  • Published 16.05.18

All good things of life, one knows, must come to an end; yet when they do one is nonetheless heart-broken. My friendship with Ashok Mitra who passed away on May 1 was among the best things of my life; yet despite the fact that he was 90 years old, with impaired vision and hearing, and ailing for long, I cannot get reconciled to his loss.

I mostly stayed with him whenever I visited Calcutta; and one of my main reasons for visiting Calcutta was to stay with him. The evenings would be spent in long gossip sessions, about his Dhaka days, about West Bengal politics, about common friends, and about the state of the Left, with him doing the talking and me the listening. In the mornings there would be what I call the famous 'tea ceremony' of the Mitra household, when, over several cups of lovely tea and biscuits, a stack of newspapers would be read and discussed, and the Telegraph crossword solved, with occasional help from the Thesaurus. Gouridi, his wife, was the most avid crossword buff amongst all of us; after her passing, exactly a decade ago, the crossword passion subsided somewhat, but the 'tea ceremony' continued. Sunday mornings were 'open house' in the Mitra household, with friends dropping in for an adda; of late, however, the numbers dropping in had dwindled, with many friends passing away.

It is ironical that when my wife Utsa and I had first met Ashokda in 1969 at a dinner at Jasodhara and Amiya Bagchi's house, we had been predisposed to avoid him. He was a celebrity of sorts, and we were of an age where one disliked celebrities. Besides, the usual question raised about Ashokda also gnawed at us: "He says he is a communist, then why is he working for Indira Gandhi's government?" We tried avoiding him throughout the evening, but he finally buttonholed us, and in the course of conversation found out that Utsa was working on her doctoral thesis at Oxford on the agrarian question in India for which she needed some reports of the Agricultural Prices Commission, of which he was then the chairman. He took down Utsa's parents' postal address in Chennai and within a week the reports came by post. This was our first inkling that he was not a celebrity of the usual sort; he kept his word.

Keeping his word was an inviolable principle for Ashokda. I recollect one occasion when Mihir Bhattacharya and I had accompanied him, shortly after his becoming the finance minister of West Bengal, to a village near Mecheda railway station where he had gone electioneering. The villagers there had asked for a bridge to be built on a local river and Ashokda had agreed. Many years later I happened to ask him if that bridge had indeed been built. He looked at me pityingly and said: "Of course." What was striking about the incident was not just that he had kept his word but also that he had remembered his promise.

The other major trait of Ashokda which his sending the APC reports to Utsa reveals was his deep interest in young persons. He would have long arguments with Sudha, the daughter of my colleague, Krishna Bharadwaj, when she was a schoolgirl, even ignoring the rest of us in the room who were engaged in what we thought was serious discussion. And once when I was in Calcutta with my son, Nishad, staying at the Ramakrishna Mission, Ashok da wanted Nishad to spend the night at his place as he wanted to chat with him. Nishad did so, though they hardly chatted much that night, since that was the famous night when India had defeated England in an ODI at Lord's, chasing a target of 326 runs. They were up most of the night watching that match.

A fascinating aspect of Ashokda's life which I have watched from close quarters was his relationship with the Communist Party of India (Marxist). His acute intellect clearly saw that no serious Left project in India was meaningful that bypassed the CPI(M), which was by far the largest Left force; accordingly he never wanted to part company with the CPI(M). Indeed, in the early 1970s, when it was quite common for Calcutta Left intellectuals to be hostile towards the CPI(M), he had chastised them in one of his Calcutta Diary columns as intellectuals who could not see "beyond their noses". At the same time, however, he was strongly committed to certain principles and would not accept their violation by the party or its government, merely out of party discipline or party loyalty.

But if Ashokda did not want to part company with the party, the party, too, did not wish to part company with him, because it knew that he would never go against it; indeed, the party itself had been moving away from the typical sledgehammer approach to discipline that its origins in the Communist International had inculcated in it. This is the reason why, when he resigned from the Left Front government and from the CPI(M) in 1986, he was "allowed" to do so; the earlier practice had been to "expel" anyone wanting to resign.

An incident illustrates the party's "he-is-one-of-us" attitude towards Ashokda in spite of his criticism of it, which could even be quite strident. A Left Democratic Front government had come to power in Kerala in 1987 with E.K. Nayanar as the chief minister, and had set up a planning board of which Ashokda and I were among a group of five advisory members and I.S. Gulati was the vice-chairman and sole full member. After one of the board meetings, Nayanar invited Ashokda and me to his chamber for some tea and a chat. When we were leaving after the chat he turned to Ashokda and said: "See you at the Party Congress" (which was to happen soon). Ashokda was much tickled, and by no means displeased, that Nayanar, a politburo member, was not even aware of his resignation from party membership which had been much played up in the Calcutta media.

In spite of his resignation from it, the party sent him to Rajya Sabha in the 1990s where Ashokda strongly opposed the neo-liberal policies being adopted by the government. As the chairman of the parliamentary standing committee for industry and commerce he played a stellar role in fighting the regime of intellectual property rights that American multinational corporations in particular were imposing upon the world through the World Trade Organization. It is a testimony to his powers of persuasion and the respect he commanded that the report of his committee on the IPR regime was unanimous, in spite of the fact that its members were drawn from a spectrum of parties.

His criticism of the party was particularly strident on its 'industrialization' drive that wooed domestic and foreign big business and alienated the peasantry which had stood with the Left Front for decades. Indeed, one of his pieces criticizing the concessions given to the Tatas for the Nano plant was titled "Santa Claus visits the Tatas". Even such criticism, however, did not mean a parting of ways. When he died, the party was actively involved in organizing his last journey. Ashokda would have been greatly delighted by this fact.

The author is Professor Emeritus, Centre for Economic Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi