Today is the 102nd birth anniversary of Jyoti Basu, the CPI(M) patriarch who still holds the record of the longest-serving chief minister in independent India (Pawan Chamling of neighbouring Sikkim is close to break the record in two years time) and a figure who had stood as a tower of the Left till his death in 2010.
Six years since his demise, the Left is in tatters. It not only slipped from the saddle of power in West Bengal in 2011---losing to a 'subaltern' leader in a massive loss of face and pride---but suffered even a worse defeat in the Assembly election this year and that too, after joining hands with the arch-rivals Congress in a not-so-comfortable alliance.
Left of post-Jyoti Basu era is clueless
After the latest thrashing in Bengal, the Left has lost its space-so much so-that it is now in a desperate mind to do anything to regain some relevance. Its camp is polarised over the decision to join hands with the Congress since it is the same party which it toppled in Kerala to return to power this year.
The Bengal camp has faced flak for failing to prove anything in the state despite allying with the Congress and its ageing and exhausted leadership gives little hope for a turnaround. The leader who the Left tried to project as an alternative in the last election---Surjya Kanta Mishra---has also lost the election while former chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee was nowhere near the electoral scene this time barring a few photo opportunities with his party candidates and Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi.
Overburdened by old school and old thought, the Left has no face for the future
The party, crippled by an overbearing gerontocracy and a dead political ideology, is now trying to back middle-aged faces as its next set of big leaders but they hardly make any difference from the faceless, particularly when the personalised rule of leaders like Mamata Banerjee and Narendra Modi are dominating.
The Left is even trying to imitate the popular politics of Banerjee by wishing people on religious occasions and even projecting its lesser-known leaders' photographs in both the real and virtual worlds. Something which was unthinkable even a few years back.
This openness in public relations is a welcome step by a party which is known for its notorious rigidity but is the Left trying the new means to better its prospects or just survive another day? It seems the second factor is more at play.
Why Left misses someone like Jyoti Basu today
And this is where the party misses the likes of Jyoti Basu. It is not that he was the only leader who had powered the Left when it was in control. After the death of Pramod Dasgupta, Basu had a host of leaders to support him---like Anil Biswas, Subhas Chakraborty, Benoy Chaudhury, Sailen Dasgupta, Buddhadeb and Biman Bose. But all gradually passed away and the vacuum kept on widening and by the time Basu breathed his last, the CPI(M)-led Left was just a shadow of the past. The very next year of his death, the party lost the power it had been experiencing for 34 years.
Despite belonging to a party with limited presence, Basu rose to prominence
Basu's greatness lies in the fact that his appeal had extended far beyond a narrowness which otherwise defined the CPI(M) and the Left. The communists could never grow as a strong force in the national politics (they even committed a harakiri after their best electoral performance nationwide in 2004) but that did not limit Basu's reputation. He almost became the prime minister in 1996 at a time when Indian politics was at its chaotic best but his own party stopped him from becoming the highest office-holder!
Basu had a mixed record as an administrator but yet he had a legacy
True, Basu had seen his state rise little during his two-decade-long chief ministership. It was under his rule that the Left destroyed the economic fortunes of Bengal by killing its industrial sector. It was his leadership which pushed Bengal back by several decades by discouraging use of English language and computers. The state of employment in Bengal sank to the bottom around this time.
On the other hand, it was also during his time that the Left carried out a land reform programme which had a far-reaching consequence in the state's agricultural life. Basu also led from the front when India witnessed horrible communal strifes in the late 1980s and early 1990s---the time when the BJP was raising its hood after the Congress got weakened. The rise of the state's infant mortality rate from sixth to fourth during Basu's rule was another high point.
Jyoti Basu: The ultimate representative of the Bhadrolok culture
Basu's record was mixed or may be more towards the bad for he did not lead Bengal's economic reneissance. But at the same time, the man was the highest manifestation of the state's renowned Bhadralok culture---something which the current state of Bengal's politics lacks. Even in his own party or rather the relic of it--it is difficult to find a similar personality who can command respect of his colleagues and the cadre. Calling Buddhadeb even a "poor man's Jyoti Basu" is not apt. The difference between the two former chief ministers is that between chalk and cheese.
Basu did not challenge his regimented party
Basu's fault had lied in the fact that he had never intended to challenge the regimented party to which he belonged or its rigid agenda. He, in fact, had surrendered to the party's dominance over the government by the mid-1990s and allowed the rot to settle in the ranks. Given the nature of the communist party, it was unlikely that one individual could have done much but there also lies Basu's credibility: Being a member among many, he still could make a mark of his own.
Today, the hapless Left needed a persona like Basu to match the appeals of Banerjee and Modi. But that is not to happen. But can the pygmies in the Left parties can at least learn from the late giant?