RESTORATION DRAMA - P.C. Joshi rehabilitated means that Promode Dasgupta is finally dead

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By Ashis Chakrabarti
  • Published 22.04.07

I wonder how Promode Dasgupta would have reacted to his party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), finally rehabilitating P.C. Joshi in the pantheon of communist heroes of India. None other than the CPI(M) general secretary, Prakash Karat, signalled the change by taking a leading part in the inaugural programme of Joshi’s birth centenary celebrations in Delhi last week and then by following it up with a full-page article on the man in the party organ, People’s Democracy.

But the party that Dasgupta built and led in Bengal negated almost everything that Joshi, the first general secretary of the undivided Communist Party of India, stood for. Many of the problems Bengal has to grapple with today are a result of Dasgupta’s emphasis on mass action. The CPI(M) alone may not be responsible for the decline of the educated gentleman in Bengal politics. But the Dasgupta line that banished “intellectualism” from mass politics institutionalized the trend.

In Bengal, Dasgupta was the prime mover of the hardline faction, led by B.T. Ranadive and P. Sundaraya, that tormented and eventually hounded Joshi out of the leadership. Although Jyoti Basu became the public face of the party in Bengal, it was Dasgupta who laid down the rules of the party games, chose the players and assigned them their roles. This was so even after Basu became the chief minister. And also after Dasgupta died in Beijing in the winter of 1982: because the party in Bengal continued to be controlled by the PDG boys.

Of their many differences, let me consider what I believe to be the two most important ones. The first is related to the debate on what political line the Indian communists would take about the Congress; the second, on what kind of people would provide the best leadership for the CPI.

But it was the debate on the qualities of communist leaders that left the PDG stamp on the party in Bengal. Joshi was in favour of the best and the brightest young men coming into the party and eventually leading it. That explains why the earlier generation of CPI leaders included so many people educated at Oxford, Cambridge or the London School of Economics. Joshi’s approach on this was best illustrated when he inducted Mohit Sen, a bright young man from Cambridge, straight into the ‘party centre’ in Delhi. In short, Joshi was an ‘elitist’. Soon after the Left Front came to power in Bengal in 1977, Dasgupta launched a feverish “anti-elitist” campaign, which Basu was powerless to oppose and which has had a crippling effect on education and other aspects of life in Bengal for the past thirty years.

In contrast to Joshi, Dasgupta represented the section of leadership that was sceptical or even suspicious of the English-speaking, Western-educated comrades from affluent middle-class families. I never met Joshi, but I knew of Dasgupta’s disdain for such comrades.

Soon after the Bengal government abolished the study of English from primary education in 1982, I and a senior colleague from the newspaper with which I then worked met Dasgupta at the CPI(M) office on Alimuddin Street. The newspaper planned a three-part report on the possible impact of the government’s decision on the study of English in higher classes and on higher education in general. Who needed English, Dasgupta shot back when we questioned him on the wisdom of the government’s decision. But his most vitriolic comments came when we referred to reports that it was more the party’s (that is, Dasgupta’s) than Basu’s decision. He paused for a brief moment, drew a heavy breath and snapped, “We can do without English-speaking people.”

We have known the devastating effect of this ‘anti-elitism’. The cynical demolition of Presidency College as a centre of excellence only symbolized the process. If the Naxalite violence of the late Sixties and the early Seventies drove the best and the brightest out of Bengal, the Dasgupta brand of anti-elitism made it impossible for most of them to come back to the state in the subsequent years. The government opened new schools and colleges in villages and small towns. Education was said to have reached the masses. But teachers, both in schools and in colleges, came to be used for party work as never before. Loyalty to the CPI(M) became a prime consideration for the appointment of teachers. Mediocrity and party loyalty together made it impossible for better-quality people to work in this suffocating atmosphere. It was a case of bad money driving away good money.

The irony is that the CPI(M) itself gradually began to discard the Dasgupta line. English was brought back to the primary classes in stages. The duplicity of the party’s ‘anti-elitist’ approach was evident once again in its handling of the affairs of Presidency College. On the one hand, the party delayed granting the college an autonomous status. On the other, party leaders admitted their sons and daughters to the college, hoping to gain an upward social mobility for the next generation. In other words, they now sought ‘elitism’ for their children. It is another matter that the quality of education at the college is now marginally better than in other colleges. Party leaders now actually aim higher — some even send their children abroad for higher studies.

At the national level, the party now has a Western-educated general secretary in Karat and a number of ‘English-speaking’ members in the politburo, such as Sitaram Yechuri and Brinda Karat. The problem is that the party is now incapable of repairing the damage it has inflicted on Bengal’s education and politics.

Joshi would have loved the other signals of the CPI(M)’s change, particularly the reformist zeal of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. The chief minister’s transformation would have pleased him for another reason as well. Bhattacharjee, like most other party leaders of his generation in Bengal, has always been a PDG boy. Joshi would have liked to see the PDG legacy being demolished by the latter’s chosen ones.

The ultimate defeat of the PDG line is, of course, signalled by the CPI(M)’s support to a Congress-led government at the Centre. If Basu had managed to persuade the party to join this government in 2004, that would have been his ultimate victory against the long, inner-party battle against Dasgupta. I have no doubt that he would be happy with his party’s rehabilitation of Joshi because it means that PDG is finally dead.