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Mr Basu's Bengal

Soutik Biswas | 12:18 UK time, Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Jyoti BasuI grew up in Calcutta - the beleaguered capital of India's eastern state of West Bengal and former capital of the British empire - when Jyoti Basu ruled the roost. He was running the world's longest running democratically elected government, we were reminded all the time. It didn't mean much to us as power cuts crippled the city, businesses were hounded out by belligerent trade unions, English teaching was banished from state-run primary schools and the quality of health and education suffered a precipitious decline. Communist party cadres took control of every part of life. Most agree that it was an "economic and cultural revolution" which set Bengal back by half a century. And the state is still struggling to get back into its groove.

So when Mr Basu passed away on Sunday at the age of 95, he left behind an extremely contentious legacy. Many find it strange that the English-educated Mr Basu - a member of the upper middle class who turned to communism after studying law in England - could have presided over what many call the ossification of Bengal and its people. Much later, Mr Basu admitted that doing away with English education - a move he rescinded after many years - and promoting intransigent trade unionism were mistakes. But by that time it was too late.

Mr Basu and his Communist government in Bengal began with high hopes and a stirring commitment to landless peasants. There were sweeping, though incomplete, land reforms. He restored social order to a restless state which had suffered famine, partition, religious rioting, an influx of refugees from neighbouring Bangladesh, Maoist violence and bloody political strife. Mr Basu also remained steadfastly secular. I remember talking to a senior police officer in Bengal years ago who said he would like to "mow down Muslim slums and drive their residents out of the city" but he couldn't do it because Mr Basu's government would tolerate no such thing.

These are considerable achievements, but that is where Mr Basu and his government ground to a halt. For the rest of close to three decades, Mr Basu, most say, practised the politics of least resistance, compromised with radical unions and gave birth to a cult of mediocrity by packing institutions with party workers. Bengal slid into a curious inertia, marked by a notoriously poor work culture, joblessness and little growth. As one commentator wrote after his death, Mr Basu, India's longest serving chief minister, achieved so little when he could have achieved so much with his redoubtable political stature. There was an oddity about a gentleman communist like him, says one commentator, who preferred "to go along with philistines."

Yet, the people of Bengal kept on voting him back to power. So can all the blame be laid at Mr Basu's door? Possibly not. Analyst Swapan Dasgupta wonders whether Mr Basu's "exalted status is a reflection for the Bengali distaste for both achievement and change". In that sense, Basu and Bengal, he says, "were made for each other". It is a damning indictment of the Bengali, but, being a Bengali myself, I know there is a lot of truth in this assertion. Globalisation is now forcing changes on Bengal and Bengalis, and things are slowly changing. Bengal's helmsman lived a rich life, but left his state infinitely poorer.

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  • 1. At 9:47pm on 19 Jan 2010, RM wrote:

    I believe that you have very aptly outlined Jyoti Basu's legacy. As someone who grew up in that treacherous environment, I could say that he does not deserve any eulogies whatsoever.

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  • 2. At 01:55am on 20 Jan 2010, ap45 wrote:

    I agree with most of what has been written, but differ on the sweeping comments about Bengalis.One must not discount that large number of Bengalis have migrated out of West Bengal, and have done well, this includes people who have moved abroad.
    The reference in which the misplaced comment has been made does not take into consideration how many people actually voted for the Communists!

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  • 3. At 07:56am on 20 Jan 2010, Ananya78 wrote:

    This is a rare, honest piece I have read in this season of hagiographic obituaries of Jyoti Basu. The man singlehandedly destroyed Bengal, leading to an out migration of the Bengal's brightest and best. But are we surprised about this? History tells us that Communist party rule all over the world leads to such things and bigger disasters like extermination and exile. Basu and his party managed to throttle Bengal and Bengalis in a more civil manner because they were forced to rule in a democracy - they just drove the best people out. But Basu and his fellow comrades must have been among the most mediocre, woolly and change resistant Marxists in the world. And many Bengalis actually hate change, and the party suited them fine.

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  • 4. At 1:33pm on 20 Jan 2010, iriscatcher wrote:

    Partly agreed,The most important achievement of left front was it provided stability at a very crucial time. Its agenda to be with the poor people was perceptible. It provided security to the minority community for years together,these are no mean achievements considering what rest of our country went through all those restless days.on economic front the lack of development is not totally the fault of left front, many a divisive central policies went against the interest of the state.What I think all are missing the gross failure of the communist government in the development of sports.Removing English from primary education was a mistake, has already been accepted by them, and they have rectified that flaw. To me as a peace loving citizen of Bengal achievements will definitely outnumber failure by a good margin.

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  • 5. At 2:17pm on 20 Jan 2010, uk2001 wrote:

    Soutik- At some point while reading this obituary I thought, I should remain silent, but then at the end I decided not to….because of this poorly written and depthless piece of blog. Being a Bengali like you and born in a family of refugee, I was brought up in Calcutta. But every year I used to visit to my uncle and aunties' house in rural Bengal and could see the changes. New hard top roads were built, then came power connection and after all peaceful life was clearly evident. I still remember my mother, who is millions of miles away from politics, used to say that she is so happy that, she could go out in the roads of her own, even in the middle of the night! I now know that it was a bit exaggeration, but mostly true after she spend her days in the late sixties and early and middle of seventies. That's where lies the legacy of Mr. Basu. He knew very well, what's the need of the hour and what should be given a priority when the resources are limited! He gave the priority to rural development, urban law and order. He not only performed rural land reform but also I know about so many instances in urban areas where the refugees were given the right of the land where they were living since they came penniless from East Bengal. I know about the teaching communities who got their decent pay and recognition to their contribution for the society. Till nineties I agree that there was no great push to curb the trade unionism or bringing in Industry…probably Mr. Basu left that area in the hands of others. But when he realised that land reform can't make any more economic progress he embraced the industrialisation policy. Sector-V, Rajarhat development, Haldia came thereafter. When we studied Engineering at JU, we had so many classmates from rural areas, who didn't even travelled to Kolkata before! This rise of living standard and the rise in the income of the rural millions accompanied by opening the door of opportunity and social mobility was the greatest contribution of Mr. Basu, that we urbanites neither understand nor appreciate.
    He was always practical leftist who knew that leftism is not for fighting to bring in bright and sunny morning of liberation from the oppressions but a continuous struggle for the people using democratic values and powers within the domain of democracy. He was more of a Fabian socialist or social democrat rather than a red nose communist.
    To me it looks like his greatest short coming was not being able to separate the party from the administration. I know that it's the party who enjoys power but at the same time I believe that after coming to power the party's role should be restricted to policy making and guideline preparation and should not be allowed to get involved with Governmental affairs. He had this capacity and capability to do it, but he didn't. The reason could be a matter to explore by political historians.

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  • 6. At 2:48pm on 20 Jan 2010, Chintan wrote:

    Agree to some extent. i have lived in kolkata for 5 years and felt that it is the attitude of the people that needs to change. they have to "Be the change they want to see."

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  • 7. At 4:06pm on 20 Jan 2010, ghostofsichuan wrote:

    We blame the leaders for things that we do not change. If people are apatheic a small group can control things. Most new governments begin in poetry and end in prose. Comparing this and that in our lifetime fails to recognize that history may view things differently. The global economy that countries now rush too just had a major collapse and trillions were taken by banks from individual retirement accounts and the bailout with future tax burdens for the people, yet this is seen as the answer to problems. Any road will get you there, if you don't know where you are going. A salary that affords an extra room, a toilet and running water and it is presented as Nibbana.....one day human beings will walk upright but for now they remained stooped over with the burden of their desires.

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  • 8. At 4:23pm on 20 Jan 2010, nemo64 wrote:

    This post took me back to the 70s and 80s when I was also growing up in Calcutta and I have to say that that phase of Leftist politics in Bengal has been captured quite brilliantly.It is an exact and very balanced write up about Basu and Bengal.

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  • 9. At 08:46am on 21 Jan 2010, anjansarkar wrote:

    Soutik, I have reading writings about Bengal and Basu like you wrote from my childhood and like I have done before, I chose not to comment. But then I thought enough is enough. I have grown up and lived in Kolkata for almost 30 years. Since my childhood, we have see Mr Basu as the CM and honestly never thought than anyone else may be the CM of Bengal. Yes, I have seen the days of power cuts but for the last 15-20 years, I am also seeing days without power cuts at all. I came back to India in April of last year (after a stay of 2 years in US) and since then I may count the number of times we had power cuts. I know the condition is not that rosy in the WBSEB areas but still the condition has improved by a huge scale. From the state of powerless for consecutive 2-3 days (that's how it was 30 years back), now they have power cuts for may be an hour a day. I am not saying this is good but it surely suggests improvement...doesn't it? I remember Mr. Basu mentioning in a rally (when I was a child) that "I know you are suffering now with electricity but a day will come when there will be no power cuts." I know he has lived to his word.

    I am totally opposed to the idea of abolishing English from primary schools. I think you clearly understand that this idea did not pop out of Jyoti Basu's head in any way. I heard it was the recommendation from a committee. I read a writing of JyotiBabu where he himself expressed shock over the decision but had to implement it because it was the recommendation. He never ever denied his responsibility for the decision. That he overturned the decision and finally brought back English in primary education is another example of the fact that he learned from mistakes. Having said that, I do not think the state of education has declined during the time of Basu. Before 1977, exams were not regular in the universities. That is, for example if the BA First Year exam was taken in 1974, the next one may have been taken in 1976 - Shocked? Yes, this was the state of the exams before 1977. I am sure you know about these situations. Also, I am pretty sure you know the current condition which is not like that. As regards the quality, I will have to say that it is among the best. I have been in West Bengal Board schools throughout and still think the standard of education and the curriculum is among the best. I taught numerous students when I was in college and many of them were not from West Bengal Board. And I have always felt that our curriculum is the best way to create the base for a child.

    As regards his administration - what is your take on the Babri Masjid issue and how Jyoti Basu handled the condition in Bengal? Name me another politician or CM who handled the situation better than Mr. Basu. Or the situation when Indira Gandhi died. How about the Teen Bigha issue in 1992? Can you think of any other politician in India who can match Mr. Basu's administrative qualities?

    Industrialization - I admit there has been quite a few problems there. Some companies left Bengal during the tenure of Mr. Basu but at the same time there have been significant improvements in agriculture during this time. There has considerable increase in the buying power of the rural people which is driving the shower of investments in Bengal in recent years. Mr. Biswas, Bengal is not about Kolkata only, it is also about the millions who live in villages. And Mr. Basu's government ensured that the mass i.e. the poor are not neglected. You may feel extremely happy about the rise in Sensex in the recent years and may also fantasize about India's prospect about becoming the leading economy by 2050. However, I honestly believe that it is a very incorrect picture about India. I understand you know that we live in a country where around 35% of the population is Below Poverty Line and the number in WB is much less than the national average. Farmers do not commit suicide in West Bengal as they do in Andhra Pradesh or Maharashtra.

    I would like to conclude by saying few more words - I see you are astonished about the fact that people kept on electing the Left Front Govt. for over 3 decades now. The reason is that you do not understand what drives Bengal. Bengal is not the place where you get votes by singing for rights of the locals or where you chant names of some mythological hero or you get vote by dint of the caste you belong to. In West Bengal, you get votes only by showing that you respect people and truly work for their welfare. That is what Mr Basu did. People re-elected him a number of times because they believed he will never do anything that will be harmful for the state and the people.

    Did you see the countless figures that turned up to be a part of the last journey of Jyoti Basu? I hope you have seen that. That it stands as the reason for which the people of this "beleaguered" state elected him again and again. Mr Basu was the symbol of hope for the masses in Bengal. And his legacy will remain forever.

    Long Live Comrade Jyoti Basu!!!

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  • 10. At 11:40am on 21 Jan 2010, Koushik Halder wrote:

    I fully agree with you Mr.Biswas.Jyoti Basu may be the cm of West Bengal for 23 years,but he only increases of party members, he didn't nothing for West Bengal.As an administrator he was failed.Because in his term we saw many incidents like "Saibari","Bantala","Marichjhapi","Molestration of anada margi's in Kasba","incident which happened in 21st july,1993" and many more.....
    In 1995-96 when Indian government tried to computerasied many offices ,west bengal governmaent(read CITU which is the labour organisation of CPIM,as CM had no control over his party)became as a barrier.CPIM won elections by machinary power not by vote.He only criticalized the situation of hill(by giving Ghising extra power ),as a result today we face agitation in hill area.You mentioned other things,so writting these things i don't want to waste time.
    Thanks...

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  • 11. At 2:14pm on 21 Jan 2010, nemo64 wrote:

    This may sound like blasphemy but I think Jyotibabu(as we call him in Bengal) ruled a communist government for 23 yrs with great elan even while remaining at heart a capitalist.Yet the responsibility with regard to English education in Bengal must squarely lie on his shoulder.He was at that time our invincible CM wasn't he?And what about the fact that the Left under him tinkered with the textbooks giving them a Leftist thrust?Committee or no committee, ultimately its the CM who must remain accountable for the policies of his government.

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  • 12. At 4:06pm on 21 Jan 2010, madhu wrote:

    I was in Calcutta in 1971(lived there) and then in 1984(short visit). The City was like a well kept Museum, with British era Buildings and Statues intact. In Calcutta zoo, there were more people than animals. People jumping in and out of the animal enclosures.

    On the way back at Howarah, bought "City of Joy", read it on the Journey. I realised that the success of Mother Theresa lay on the failure of the communist Government there. The void created by the state was occupied by the Charity.

    Madhu.


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  • 13. At 01:59am on 22 Jan 2010, Jay wrote:

    I was waiting for this day of his death since I was 10 yrs old. That chap, Jyoti Basu, almost single handedly turned West Bengal to Waste Bangaal (immigrants from East Pakistan). We, the Bengali people, lost at least three generations for his gross misrule. I am thankful that cancer of CPM that Basu made could not spread further in India. I am sure Yamraj and other inhabitants in narak (hell) will be equally cautious of him.

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  • 14. At 10:36am on 22 Jan 2010, Yashpal Nagar wrote:

    "Mr Basu, India's longest serving chief minister, achieved so little when he could have achieved so much with his redoubtable political stature."

    The above line says thousand words itself. Mr. Basu was a man of masses and a great marxist but he forgot to balance the liberalism and communalism. It would have been great to see him if he could have changed with the time! The time he was born and studied, it was really bad time I guess, where communilism was a way for poor people to safegaurd human rights in India. But after the India's independence it should have become imperative to join global world. So sorry, Mr. Basu being so great leader couldn't really do much better, where he could have done wonders, by just changing with time!

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  • 15. At 07:01am on 23 Jan 2010, Amrita wrote:

    Bengal, or rather, Kolkata, will get her groove back- with a lot more people now able to participate, precisely because Mr. Basu's serial goverments concentrated their efforts on alleviating the harshest living conditions in the countryside.

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  • 16. At 10:08am on 24 Jan 2010, ajohn wrote:

    I am glad he did not become the PM.

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  • 17. At 1:24pm on 24 Jan 2010, Ritesh wrote:

    Brilliant article !! Probably the best eulogy of Mr. Basu (if it can be called a eulogy). One thing that Mr. Biswas did not mention is Bengalis love for idealism, especially the idea of socialism. Mr. Basu and his communist comrades exploited this love to their utmost advantage for gaining power in Bengal and clinging to it for last 40 years without doing anything. In that regard they are no different from other political parties that use religion, caste or language to grab power. What makes them worse is their interference with educational institutions, industry and intolerance to freedom of expression. Other parts of India were able to make progress despite having the same class of abysmal political leadership in the 70s & 80s because private enterprise was able to thrive. When liberalization arrived in the 90s these private enterprises were able to take advantage of the new environment and spur growth in jobs & living standards.

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  • 18. At 1:33pm on 24 Jan 2010, Soumya Panigrahi wrote:

    I was born in a remote village in West Bengal and I witnessed every single moments of the rise of 'Red Terror' in my state.
    I can honestly say that Mr Biswas's blog is a perfect piece of truth...but incomplete truth.
    I saw....
    1. How text books were changed to pump falsified and amplified ideas of communism from early chidhood.
    2. The purpose of education for the majority was turned to create a bulk of mal-educated people who will never reach higher education and will join as party-caadre and some of will receive unemployment benefits and a lot of hope for a bright monetary future for free.
    3. I saw how the sweet village relationship between people became bloody relationships of murder and hatrate.
    4. NATURAL INFRASTRUCTURAL DEVELOPMENT HAPPENED IN THE VILLAGES, BUT IT HAPPENED IN A MUCH GREATER PACE IN OTHER STATES OF INDIA WITHOUT HAVING SUCH A PARTY CENTRIC ADMINISTRATION
    5. THE LAND REFORM WAS INTENDED TO BUY PEOPLE AND THEIR VOTES..IT IS A SERIOUS ISSUE TO EVALUATE ACTUALLY HOW MANY PEOPLE GOT THE BENEFITS OF THE LAND REFORM...AND ACTUALLY HOWMANY PEOPLE WORKED FOR THE PARTY WITH THE HOPE OF GETTING A PIECE OF LAND OR A PROMISHED JOB.
    MR BISWAS DID NOT WRITE ABOUT THE NUMBER OF FACTORIES CLOSED IN BENGAL IN LAST 33 YEARS..HOW THE ELECTION WINNING MECHINARY WAS DEVELOPED UNDER JOTY BASU'S LEADERSHIP...HOW THEY PURCHASED PEOPLE AT EVERY LEVEL AND MADE THEM OBEYING PARTY ORDERS.

    6. IT WOULD BE INTERESTING TO KNOW HOW THE CPIM PARTY AND ITS CADERS SYSTEMETICALLY CRIPPLED A DEMOCRATIC SYSTEM JUST TO WIN ELECTIONS ANAWAY...SO FAR THEY ARE VERY VERY SUCCESSFUL... LIKE ALL SO CALLED COMMUNISTIC REGIMENS AROUND THE WORLD THEY MANAGED TO REDUCE THEIR OPPOSITION INTO ALMOST NOTHING...THEY CALCULATED EVERY SINGLE VOTER AND WHOEVER IS IN DOUBT OF NOT VOTING THEM COULD NOT VOTE BECAUSE IT WAS INVARIABLY BEING FOUND THAT SOMEONE ELSE VOTED BEFORE THEM.

    7.I am so sorry and sad about my Bengal...I am sorrry for the people who STILL silently suffer UNDER THIS PARTY-REGIMEN !
    I HOPE SOMEDAY NORMAL DEMOCRACY WILL RETURN...BUT THIS ENORMOUS DAMAGE TO HUMANITY...WE HAVE TO CARRY IT WITH US FOR SEVERAL GENERATIONS

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  • 19. At 4:03pm on 24 Jan 2010, Essar wrote:

    It will be IMPOSSIBLE for anyone with a rational view to object to ANYTHING that Soutik Biswas has written. After being away from Bengal and India for more than forty years - while going back almost every year - I have had the utmost displeasure of noticing the precipitous decline of Bengal.

    Before the advent of communist rule in West Bengal, arguably it was the most industrialized state in India. In less than two decades Jyoti Basu almost single handedly turned the state into one of the most backward, almost fossilized and most lawless state not just in India, in just about anywhere.

    Once again, one has to only take a balanced look at the record.

    However as Soutik also suggests, perhaps Bengalis did deserve him. Just like the Americans did deserve George Bush in 2003. However, to their credit, Americans turned away from such mindset. Bengalis never did. As a matter of fact, even their so-called opposition, led by personalities such as Mamata Bannerjee, is simply propagating what Jyoti Basu started.

    Most Bengalis are simply watching from the sidelines.

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  • 20. At 05:46am on 25 Jan 2010, Rahul Basu wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 21. At 06:07am on 25 Jan 2010, Rahul Basu wrote:

    I agree with Ritesh. The politicians by and large in India and most countries are the biggest goons, and the worst obstacles for a healthy growth. Therefore, despite of the existance of such non-perishable filthy maggots in our otherwise civilised society, we need to creat the green pastures for us and our future generations. That will happen, when the private companies can thrive. Other states of India has the similar level of abysmal ruling hoodlums, but the states grew despite of them. Some good apples in the basket of rotten apples paved the way for industrialisation and that worked good for the people of those states. The apple basket of Bengal unfortunately lacked those few good apples. Therefore the mushrooming trade unions danced mercilessly on the corpses of the dead industris and as a result the state slid down many decades back. It may take years for the politically sicken minds to come back to a normal state and the growth of Bengal turns into a forward moving gear.

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  • 22. At 06:12am on 25 Jan 2010, Rahul Basu wrote:

    Jatin. I am amused to read your comment. Well said. Why only Bengal, many other parts of India has bacome a trash-can of East Pakisatni immigrants. It's a shame for a well educated bengali to speak the similar language they speak. They should be buldozed out of India.

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  • 23. At 4:02pm on 25 Jan 2010, Shilpy wrote:

    In India, the politicians just don't go away until they die. Just look all over India; most leaders are so old, and have been there for so long. They are about to kick the bucket any moment but just won't go away. They can barely take care of their physical selves, including India's prime minister, and yet presume to shape others' destiny. The PM of India can't even win an election on his own, and yet he presumes to be the leader of the "biggest democracy". Politics is a family business until death. Democracy has stopped to mean people's rule as Abraham Lincoln had envisioned and defined. Democracy is so expensive that it is now a business in the hands of firmly entrenched well financed vested interests. A Gandhi dog would easily win over a well qualified person in an "election". It is time for another French revolution against such democracy in India. The Chinese rule at least looks honest; no wonder China has galloping growth.

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  • 24. At 07:21am on 10 Feb 2010, vsmani40 wrote:

    I have lived in Calcutta when Dr Roy, the then Chief Minister, made West Bengal the pride of Industrial development. But Mr Basu changed all that and had taken West Bengal to one of the lowest of the developed states in India.

    If Mahatma Gandhi was also famous for the non-cooperation movement under the British Rule, Mr Basu embodied the non-working movement all these years. He leaves behind Calcutta Corporation, which still upholds his philosophy of non-working, and that will be his greatest monument.

    It is sad that all his education was totally wasted and ended up in ruining a state where people are very good and liked to work hard, at one time!.

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