Thursday, January 21, 2010

A glorious legacy

Short piece written on Jyoti Basu for "The Sunday Indian" magazine .

The death of Jyoti Basu marked the end of a legendary set of political leaders who were visibly part of the freedom movement. Much of the commentary following his death has primarily focused on his record making 23 years as chief minister of the eastern state of West Bengal, but what has been rarely discussed is that his political life spanned nearly seven decades - starting as a student activist who joined the Communist movement and aided in the freedom struggle while in England, later immersing himself into working class organising, working in legislature from the young age of 32 after getting elected from the Railway constituency in as early as 1946, building his rudimentary party -which was banned and came out of the same in the early 1950s - into viable opposition to the ruling Congress, and serving as the leader of the opposition for years, working in a coalition government and finally becoming the chief minister of the state. In all his roles that he played in his career - his political positions were remarkably consistent - from opposing what he called the "ultra-left" resolution for an insurrection by the Communist Party just post the independence, to utilise the parliamentary route for mass struggles and combining it with extra-parliamentary work to building a robust and highly penetrative form of three tiered democratic institutions - the Panchayati Raj when in government. In the manner he worked even with his adversaries and in the high praise that he earned for his work both in opposition and in government, Jyoti Basu distinguished himself as a democrat to the core.

Critics - particularly from the urban middle class sections and there are many - have pointed out to the lack of adequate industrialisation of West Bengal during the years Jyoti Basu ruled. The man himself acknowledged some of the shortcomings of his government - he was self-critical of his government's achievements in education and health for example, but seen in the overwhelming light of the achievements made by the CPI(M) led government in tackling rural poverty, food insecurity and rural to urban migration, it can be said with authority that the Jyoti Basu led regime was the most pro-poor among all state governments in the country. The implementation of land reforms - even today 22% of the total land distributed in India has been done in West Bengal and 54.6% of the total beneficiaries in the country were from West Bengal - was the sterling achievement in his legacy as chief minister. As regards industrialisation, the chief minister fought lengthy battles with the Central government over discrimination in clearing industrial projects and managed to build the Haldia Petrochemicals project. Following the liberalisation policies adopted in the Centre, Jyoti Basu seized the opportunity to escape the licence-permit-raj dominated economic system to construct the New Industrial Policy in 1994, but always emphasised that the policy should complement the needs of the urban and rural poor.

In the way he constructed the concept of united and left fronts, in the manner he impressed upon the Congress to build the United Progressive Alliance (the first time that the Congress was running a coalition government) supported by the Left Front from outside and in the way he was consulted by his ideological counterparts such as Rajiv Gandhi (on Panchayati Raj, relations with China), Atal Behari Vajpayee (in the Indo-Bangladesh water sharing treaty), he showed his mettle as a sagacious and wise statesman who was appreciated not just by his fellow compatriots but also by his detractors.

At a time when there is a growing rupture and disconnect between upper/middle class India and lower class, rural India, Jyoti Basu's legacy of an alternate form of government that prioritised the needs of the poor and provided dignity, livelihoods and a much viable existence can be inculcated by our present political class. His uncompromising secular vision, emphasis on building consensus, party discipline, and dedication to work for the other - empowering the marginalised are attributes and characteristics that the young should strive for and adopt even in the much changing world of the 21st century.

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