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Jyoti Basu: An Appraisal

Omkar Goswami


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 man.

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 over hagiography.

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 off.

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


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