In a league of his own
Ashok Mitra (1928-2018)
Twelve years ago, when the rank and file of the Left was still basking in the glory of a big election victory in the summer of 2006, an article had appeared in the Economic and Political Weekly titled "Suffrage in West Bengal". While lauding the electoral sweep of the Left Front, it expressed apprehension regarding the conversion of arable land for commercial exploitation at the State's behest and cited the loss in the Bhangar assembly constituency as a warning signal. The article had cautioned the newly-formed Left Front government against deviating from left principles and urged it to "continuously watch its steps". Had such wise counsel been heeded on that day instead of being spurned by those in power then, history would perhaps have taken a different course in West Bengal. The author of that article, Ashok Mitra, passed away this May Day at the age of 90.
Mitra will no doubt be fondly remembered for his many accomplishments; he was an outstanding political economist and policymaker, a compassionate teacher, a literary genius, a meticulous chronicler of modern Bengal and a doyen within Indian Marxist thinkers, with a life fully devoted to the cause of human emancipation. But what set him truly apart was the sheer courage to stand by his convictions.
Here was someone who had served as the chief economic adviser to the Indian government when Indira Gandhi was at the helm. But he resigned when he saw State repression being unleashed on the Opposition and on the ordinary people in his home state. The fact that his successor to that position subsequently went on to become prime minister should give an idea of what Mitra had given up, because he was unwilling to compromise his principles and beliefs.
As the first finance minister of the Left Front government in West Bengal, Mitra played a key role in all the signature initiatives of the Left that transformed rural Bengal and ensured an enviable longevity for the government with Jyoti Basu at the helm. His contributions in bringing Centre-state relations and fiscal federalism to the centre stage of political debate in India in the 1980s had also won him accolades at the national level. He could easily have been the longest serving state finance minister in the country, but, once again, chose to resign from the cabinet when he felt that he would have to act against his convictions.
Detractors, outside as well as within the Left, have often held these acts as manifestations of hardline dogmatism, inflexibility and impulsiveness. However, at a time when politicians and policymakers were transmogrifying into marketable commodities in the 'post-ideological', globalizing world, it was Mitra's firm insistence on ideological consistency, intellectual honesty and selflessness that provided a formidable moral counterweight. It accorded him a credibility, which practically no political leader and only a few intellectuals could match. Combined with a razor-sharp intellect, this trust and credibility he earned as a truth teller put Mitra in a league of his own.
It is ironical that the party with which Mitra remained associated for most of his life could not realize his worth. Despite his differences with the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Mitra did not ever hesitate either to defend the party in the face of right-wing assaults or to campaign for it during the elections. However, the party leadership, particularly in Bengal, could neither grasp the gravity of his critique nor possessed the political will to make course corrections along the lines that he suggested. Catastrophes like Singur and Nandigram could have been avoided if the party had listened to his early warnings on land acquisition and the industrialization drive. The dogged defence of those errors by the party leadership even after the people of Bengal had delivered successive electoral verdicts against it must have been even more painful. Ignoring his advice, the CPI(M) suffered heavy erosion of its base among the poor which is now paving the way for a further rightward shift in Bengal's polity.
The reason why Mitra, the author of highly acclaimed works like Calcutta Diary and Apila Chapila, started a magazine titled Arekrakam in his twilight years is that the fighter within him never gave up. He continued with his incisive observations and comments against deviations in left principles till the very end.
There will never be another Ashok Mitra again. One can only hope that the sublime legacy he leaves behind either leads to serious introspection within the extant Left leadership — this would be nothing short of a miracle — or inspires the younger generation in rediscovering the principled Left in Bengal in a new content and form.