Jyoti Basu deserves respect. As
India’s longest ruling chief minister — 23 years
from 1977 to 2000. As a polite man with a sense of
humour; first elected in 1946; who then got elected
in all but one state election between 1952 and 1996,
a total of 11 times; was more hardworking than most
of his colleagues and party members; who interacted
with various political personalities, irrespective
of their creed; who, despite his “historic blunder”
comment, strictly followed the rules of party
discipline and the principles of communism; and yet,
loved good food, good whisky and a post-prandial
cognac. It is difficult to be objective about this
And yet, I suspect that Basu would have demanded an
objective assessment of his tenure. If the CPI(M) in
West Bengal choose to make him a deity on the
various walls of its cities and towns, Jyoti-babu’s
ghost will not be amused. He would prefer honesty
In 1967 and then 1969, the Bangla Congress came into
power because of CPI(M)’s support. Ajoy Mukherjee
was the weak chief minister; Jyoti Basu, the
deputy-CM, called the shots. Then, Basu and the
CPI(M) had a single-point agenda: to cripple the
government while strengthening CPI(M)’s power base.
It did, in the 20 years from 1967 to 1987. But it
also devastated West Bengal.
A vicious, no-holds-barred war between the CPI(M),
the Naxalites and the Congress up to 1974 killed
thousands of young people throughout the state.
Abusing Dharma Vira taught the CPI(M) MLAs the
importance of insulting governors. The party
destroyed industry, through violent and incessant
strikes in Calcutta, Budge Budge, Sibpur, Naihati,
Howrah, Durgapur and Asansol. Factories shut down
and companies packed up — never to return again.
Infrastructure collapsed. Roads were euphemisms for
huge potholes; buses were burnt at whim; the police,
earlier efficient, soon became an organ of the
party; power cuts were so ubiquitous that Tangail
weavers designed ‘power cut saris’, which went from
light to very dark. The CPI(M) began the trend of
calling state-wide bandhs despite being the party of
the government in power.
Another lasting damage was to education. From the
second half of the 1960s, some of the better
students had started leaving after their bachelor’s
degree. By the mid-1970s it had become a deluge,
thanks to university exams being conducted at least
a year later than usual. In the name of equality,
the best colleges were destroyed. Presidency
College, Bengal Engineering College, Lady Brabourne,
Bethune and Jadavpur University were incrementally
staffed by non-performing apparatchiks; while the
best professors were ordered to teach in second-rung
colleges. By the early 1990s, students who could
were escaping West Bengal after Class 12. Today,
many escape after Class 10. This is probably the
worst damage that CPI(M) wreaked upon West Bengal.
Jyoti-babu was not directly responsible for this
havoc. But it happened under his watch.
The one positive change was the redistribution of
agricultural land to landless peasants and
sharecroppers. It created a sense of ownership and
helped increase agricultural productivity.
Unfortunately, the good effects haven’t lasted.
According to the 2001 Census, rural West Bengal is
not much better than rural Assam, Orissa or Bihar.
Consider electrification. In 2001, 44 per cent of
rural households in India had electricity
connections; in West Bengal, merely a fifth. For
rural India, 41 per cent of households had permanent
or pucca dwellings in 2001, versus less than a
quarter in rural West Bengal. Over three-quarters of
rural households in West Bengal did not have
drinking water within their homestead; and of these,
84 per cent didn’t have electricity. Thus, in 2001,
8.5 million households in the state went elsewhere
to fetch water; of these, 7.2 million had no
electricity. In 2001, only rural Orissa was worse
Jyoti-babu was a different man after two terms in
office. By the early 1990s, he had realised the need
to get industry back. Somnath Chatterjee and he left
no stone unturned to secure Memoranda of
Understandings — to a point where Chatterjee was
called MoU-da. But it was too late, except for
ventures like Haldia Petrochemicals, which also
faced trouble with the state government.
By 2000, when Jyoti-babu had stepped down as chief
minister, the damage was done. West Bengal had no
industry worth the name; its higher education was in
ruins; the cities were deteriorating; jobs were few;
and the CPI(M)’s absolute power over all aspects of
governance had started to corrupt. Agricultural
productivity growth was not enough to get West
Bengal to any meaningful place under the sun.
Longest chief minister? Certainly. Clever and canny?
Absolutely. Polite? Without doubt. More control than
anyone in state politics? No question. Could he
change West Bengal? Yes. For the better? You judge.
Here’s something to think about: if West Bengal gets
a crazy Luddite to rule after the next election, who
will the CPI(M) blame?
Published: Business World, February 2010