Jyoti Basu (1914-2010) slipped into the night. He was a lifelong Marxist and Communist, and was the Chief Minister of Bengal from 1977 to 2000. Basu’s service to Communism and to Bengal was equivalent: he wavered from neither.
Indian Communism reached an impasse in the 1970s, with the moderate CPI afflicted by its too close an association with the Emergency, and the reckless Naxalites undone by their misreading of the historical moment. The CPM, which was formed in 1964 with Jyoti Basu as one of its original Politburo members (the last to die), assessed Indian democracy as important enough to take seriously, to use its institutions and its Constitutional commitments to the fullest, while offering a sustained critique of its limitations. Mass organizing to build a viable alternative to the class domination of the democratic institutions was essential, and it was to this end that Basu and others like him had committed their lives over the course of the middle years of the Twentieth Century (Basu began his Communist work with the railway men’s union).
In 1977, after ten years of united front work, opportunity knocked. The Communists had built a wide coalition in Bengal thanks to the grassroots work among the workers and peasants. This bloc presented the CPM and its allies with the majority in the State government. Basu was elected to lead the government. He held that post for twenty-three years, leading the Left Front to several successful elections. Aided by his comrades Harekrishan Konar and Benoy Choudhury, Basu initiated the most successful campaign of Indian Communism: the land reform and tenancy registration campaigns of the 1970s and 1980s. It was here that Basu’s Bengal was able to demonstrate the vitality of a state government, even with its limited state powers (as opposed to the central government’s power). A Communist government genuinely committed to the well-being of the masses was capable of much more than a bourgeois government, even when restricted by bourgeois legalism. In 1978, Basu told a reporter, "Under the Indian constitution, we cannot make the kind of basic changes that are needed. If we assumed national power in Delhi, things would be very, very different. But for now we must be content to make whatever small improvements we can in the lives of the poor people, to make life more livable."
Additionally, Basu’s Bengal proved that the Naxalite adventure was unnecessary to push forward both reformist policies and non-reformist reforms; the latter are those that push the system to its limits. Mass enthusiasm for the land reforms and the tenancy registration campaign helped raise the productivity of Bengal’s agriculture. Between 1950 and 1960, the compound annual rate of growth in rice production was a measly 1.01%; between 1980 and 1995, the rate rose to 5.03%. As Amartya Sen put it in 1992, "West Bengal – with a growth rate of over 7 percent per annum in agricultural value added – more than two and a half times the national average – can be described as the agricultural success story of the 1980s." Neither the Soviet Russian example nor the Chinese Maoist one was to be the model for India; the Indian Communists had to find their own method, and in the slogan of "govern and mobilize," they were able to establish a sensible path.
Pramod Dasgupta, one of Basu’s closest comrades in the 1970s, worked out the general direction of Left Front governance in an interview in 1978, "Only when the village people have become politically aware will they be able to discharge the important functions to be transferred to the panchayats. In bourgeois parliamentary democracy, the common man has no political role once he has cast his vote in the election. We are determined to give him a continuing role in rural development. When the common villager has realized this role, he will be able to acquire self-confidence, and take collective initiative to change the life of the rural poor and the middle class. If even with the limited power at our disposal, we can accomplish certain things in the villages, we should be able to bring about a mass awakening among the rural people. Collective consciousness and thinking will rekindle the life-flame of the village poor; those who have for centuries been victims of exploitation will learn to stand up for their rights." It is this vision (land reform, tenant registration, panchayati rule) brought into practice by Basu’s government and the mass organizations of the Left that produced immense gains for West Bengal. It also brought Bengal to the threshold of another problem: once having sorted out agrarian democracy, how does a state government, with restricted powers, in a neoliberal context (post-1991) deal with questions of employment and industry? This is the question that Basu’s government put on the table in the 1990s; the question remains unanswered.
For Bengal, the Communist rule from 1977 onward has been a remarkable break from what came before. The torrential period under the Congress government of Siddhartha Shankar Ray has been largely forgotten only because of the success of the Left Front in creating a modicum of political stability and civic life in the state. When Ray was Chief Minister, violence was the order of the day. Communal tension and police excesses became very familiar. The "law and order killings" of the 1970s (263 CPM members killed by the police between March 17, 1970 and April 24, 1971) were preceded by a long history of brutal repression of worker’s ordinary civic rights (the lathi charge of 300,000 hunger marchers in 1959 is emblematic). Such instability reigned in Bengal that the Central Government had to take over governance in 1968, and 30,000 people were arrested to calm things down. Routine mass arrests, routine "encounter killings" came alongside the collapse of Bengal’s economy (some of it brought down by the historical tragedy of anachronism: plastics put paid to jute, for instance). Turmoil was the order of the day.
The terror of the 1970s was not happenstance. The Left had gained in strength. It had to be stopped. Basu later reflected on the events of the period, "Everything was preplanned and the Congress did not stop from even using the Naxalites and the breakaway factions of the erstwhile United Front to try and annihilate the CPM. The Naxalites had become more and more disoriented after getting alienated from the people and were stooping to the level of attacking teachers and students in their desperation. The CPM fought back against this anarchy and mindless violence. Our enemies thus made us their main target and fueled the Naxalites in their activities. On the one hand, they labeled the Naxalites as ‘well-intentioned, brave young men,’ and on the other, pilloried us for attacking the Naxalites. All this, when the reality was quite the opposite." Much the same kind of assault is ongoing these days in Bengal, and much the same kind of media spin is given to the political genocide against the CPM since 2007 (over 200 CPM supporters have been brutally assassinated by the Maoists-TMC in the western districts of West Bengal, in an area where the CPM candidate won the Lok Sabha election in 2009).
The Left Front rule from 1977 has to be given credit for bringing some measure of political calm to Bengal. Police excesses are not as they were, and political demonstrations are less easily targeted than they once were. In Kolkata, days after the Babri Masjid had been destroyed by the Sangh Parivar, Basu and the CPM went into action – a hands-across-Bengal movement drew many of us into a pledge to prevent the virus of communalism from returning to the state. An elderly man who happened to be holding my hand near Hazra crossing recounting his experiences from the days of the partition riots in the city. He feared a return to that madness, but then felt that it could not be thanks to the fortitude and civilization of Basu’s Left Front. Basu would later put it plainly, "Barbarians destroyed Babri Masjid. We stood dishonored before the whole world." But not Bengal. It held fast.
Jyoti Basu was the longest serving Communist head of government in the world. He was 95 when he died. He lived a million lives. His life of commitment will allow millions of others to live their lives with dignity and hope.
Vijay Prashad is a contributing editor to Himal South Asian