COMRADE Jyoti Basu, who passed away at the ripe old age of 95 years last month, would be wondering what he has done to receive such adulation from foreign newspapers, who never took his communism seriously, and did not take kindly to him while he was alive. They are calling him charming and elegant, as if they were referring to a Hollywood model, not a rough-and-tumble politician from Kolkata. For a man who was, or seemed to be, a virulent Marxist all his working life, this would have been the biggest shock of his colourful life.
I have a feeling that the foreign newspapers know something we don’t. It is possible that they never took his communism seriously, and it is quite on the cards that they believed he was not really a communist. Basu’s grasp of Marxism-Leninism was shaky, to say the least. In fact, he never spoke in those terms. He was also not much of a national leader, and rarely moved out of Kolkata, except to attend politburo meetings. He almost never addressed meetings of workers, or any meetings, in big towns and cities like Mumbai or Delhi which have more workers than Kolkata. And he avoided making statements on things that didn’t concern him, like, for instance, the fall of the Berlin Wall on which the whole world went ga-ga, or the collapse of the Soviet Union that followed, which was close to his heart, but on which he made no comment either.
Basu was very much a home-bred politician, which is surprising, considering he had spent four years in London and once confessed that he was still a Londoner at heart. Jyoti Basu, a Londoner? The mind boggles. Religiously, he visited London every summer and spent a holiday there, but never, as far as his friends can recall, in Kashmir or Darjeeling. It was said that he had a house there, and maybe even a hotel, which was being run by his businessman son. I once saw him having fish and chips in Camden Town, near Hampstead, but he did not say hello. He was in a nice dark suit, a little tight for him, but maybe he had purchased it in late ’thirties when he had spent years in London. It was quite a sight.
There are, it is said, two types of communists: Those who smile, and those who don’t. It is a minor difference, but one that tells us a great deal about them. I have always believed that a communist who smiles is far more dangerous than one who doesn’t, like an unsmiling cat waiting for its next mouse. It was said that Jyoti Basu never smiled-it was his trademark. It was true enough. He did not smile even when he became Chief Minister in 1977, after a long career in the streets of Kolkata. He did not smile even in 1996 when there was talk that he would become the next prime minister.
I met him twice, once when he was a trade union leader, and another time when he had become Chief Minister of his state. Both times, he kept a stiff upper lip, never showing a single tooth, as children do when facing the dentist.
I first met him when he was president of the trade union in my company, or rather the company I worked for in Kolkata about fifty years ago. Most of the talking at the meeting was being done by company trade union bosses but Basu had come in case they needed help. Basu hardly said a word throughout the meeting, and when it was over, he left, also without saying a word.
The second time I saw him was in 1977 when he had become Chief Minister. He must have been past sixty then, but he did not look a day older than forty. We first met in his office which was being renovated. After saying a few words, he took us into a small back office, which he used for resting at lunch time. There was a small bed, a couple of chairs and a small table on which was a tumbler of water and a glass-just one glass.
Basu sat on the bed, and offered us the chairs. He spoke mostly in monosyllables. Was he pleased that he had become Chief Minister? No comment, just a shrug of the shoulders. What would he do now? We shall see. There is so much poverty in West Bengal and industry is fleeing. How do you propose tackling the situation? I am thinking about it. And so on. Either he didn’t want to tell us anything, or he really had not made up his mind. It was a wasted meeting.
Jyoti Basu knew his politics, but not his economics. He made sure of his vote bank through his million-acre land distribution programme but when the programme came to a halt, he had nothing else in hand. He believed that the programme would put so much cash into the hands of farmers that it would spawn an industrialisation drive and create huge employment. Nothing of the sort happened. Money is not the only thing you need for industry and business. You need businessmen behind money. Basu & Co had frightened off businessmen by spewing poison against them for years, and the Tatas and the Birlas and the Goenkas had fled the state. Now that the communists were in charge, they refused to come back.
It is not clear whether Basu knew all this, but, in the process, he reduced the one-time leading industrial state in India to economic backwater. Jyoti Basu will go down in history as the great destroyer of Bengal, for the farmers who now own the land refuse to sell it to businessmen, even to Tatas, who were forced to take their Nano elsewhere, after spending crores on it.
Why are foreigners so pleased with Basu then showering him with superlatives, now that he is no more? My hunch is that they are happy that Jyoti Basu has damaged West Bengal beyond redemption, for the state is where the British occupation of India began and also where British business entrenched itself. The communists, led by Basu & Co, were responsible for throwing out the businessmen and now the state stands denuded of all industry and business. And the man who did it? Their own Jyoti Basu, a man who studied in London, ate dinners in Lincoln’s inn, as do all would-be barristers, and then came home and finished his state. What more can the British ask for?
It is not the fault of Jyotibabu alone. The communists in Soviet Union did the same and destroyed the country. Communists know their politics backwards, but not their economics, though their guru, the great Marx, makes great play with economic theories, and his great tome, Das Kapital is essentially an economic treatise. But economics is ultimately about people, for economic activity consists of buying and selling, which involves buyers and sellers. But communists have never understood people and have always taken them for granted. If people become difficult, just go out and eliminate them, which is what Stalin and Mao did. But Basu & Co could not do that in India. India is too big for Marxists, for while Marx was born yesterday, India was born five thousand years ago, and can have Marxists for breakfast.