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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 Much later, Mr Basu admitted that doing away with English education - a move he rescinded after many years - and promoting intransigent trade unionism were mistakes.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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