Jyoti Basu reminds me of the late Lalmohan Ghosh, assistant post master general (towards the end of the Raj), maternal grandfather of my best friend, the late Tilak Roy Chowdhury, who believed "common sense is an uncommon commodity." This extremely rare gift catapulted Basu to enviable heights. Manikuntala Sen, arguably perhaps the best-ever-woman Communist leader in the Indian Communist movement, reminisced in her book In Search of Freedom: An Unfinished Journey (English translation of Shediner Kotha, written originally in Bengali) that Basu predicted the split in the undivided Communist Party of India. That was two years ahead of the birth of CPI(M), which came into being in October 1964. Sen was then reluctantly seeking re-election to the West Bengal State Assembly from the Kalighat constituency in 1962. “The Party was then split into two factions and it was difficult to fight the elections…The leaders felt I had to contest the elections regardless of the prospect of defeat. Jyotibabu told me, 'After all, this is the last time we will campaign as a united party'”. Basu said these words months before the Chinese invaded India on October 20, 1962, hastening the division of the Communist Party of India (CPI).
Tragedy, however, marks the moment in which the patriarch took a prominent part in splitting the Indian Communist movement. The splitters crossed the Rubicon on the 51st birthday of Basu at a convention in Tenali in Andhra Pradesh on July 8,1964. Throughout his political life Basu showed a keen sense of political understanding layered with common sense. Speaking at the Nehru Centre, London, on August 5, 1998 on “India in the 21st Century”, Basu said, “In the 20th century we witnessed ebbs and flows in human progress. But no democratic order emerged in this century that accorded the highest regard to the human value-system and socio-economic justice. An order fully committed to the abolition of poverty from the society.” (Translated from the Bengali version, published in the autumn special of Ganashakti, CPI(M)’s Bengali morninger, in 1998). It was a candid realisation that even Soviet Union, China, the Leninist regimes in East Europe, failed to abolish poverty, let alone establish a social order that was essentially supposed to be humane.
Unwittingly, Basu spoke in the same vein as Maximillien Rubel, one of the greatest Marxist scholars after David Borisovich Riazanov and Anton Pannenkoek. He believed that the Socialism of Lenin and his followers (Stalin to Mao) was a brazen deviation from Marx’s ideation of Socialism which is essentially revolutionary humanism. Rubel’s views were later shared by Charles Bettelheim, Paul Mattick, Paresh Chattopadhyay and several Marxist scholars outside official Communism. But Basu had not read the works of those reputed scholars.
Topping Basu's achievement list is his unbroken tenure as West Bengal's chief minister for 23 years. He was baptised into Communism by the legendary Rajani Palme Dutt, the reputed theoretician of the Communist Party of Great Britain, during his student years in Britain. He was among the first three CPI members of Bengal provincial assembly in 1946. And the only politician to have refused the prime ministership, in 1996. The decision — though — was not his. It was handed down by the majority of the CPI(M) central committee. But in the early 1950s too, he had declined the offer to be a member of politbureau of CPI in order to spend more time in his own state. Ironically, his party the CPI(M) as it readies to observe his birth centenary, is today facing near political extinction.
The author is a veteran journalist, specialising in Left politics, history and environmental issues