In the summer of 1977, at one of the biggest political rallies ever seen at the Brigade Parade ground, a diminutive bald-headed man in a spotless white kurta and dhoti, declared–‘As long as the people remain with us, no one will be able to efface us.’ [Source]. The sea of humanity roared back, believing in the ability of the interlocutor to bring ‘change’—change that could be believed in
On a cold January in 2010, the same man took his last journey. The mood, as Hindustan Times reports, was markedly different. Glaringly so.
But the crowd that gathered outside Advanced Medicare & Research Institute, the hospital where Basu was admitted on January 1, seemed smaller than the one that had gathered for his acolyte Subhas Chakraborty a few months ago.
At 3:05 in the afternoon, when the hearse carrying Basu’s shrunk frame emerged from the hospital, the crowd shouted “Jyoti Basu zindabad.” It failed to turn into a roar, one befitting the stature of the man whom they had voted for a record successive five times in office.
As the 24-car convoy wailed and roared through Salt Lake, Basu’s address for the 20 years, the calm neighbourhood maintained its stiff upper lip. None lined the houses on either side of the route, nor was a curious bystander in sight.
Just across the road from the hospital soccer-crazy people were going to Salt Lake stadium, where the FIFA world cup trophy was on display.
A couple of labourers kept hammering the boards of a make shift gate at the stadium with a loud and continuous thud.
Some youngsters even confessed to have stopped by to catch a glance of filmstar Mithun Chakravarty who had come to the hospital at noon.
Kolkata, the city of emotions, had failed to open up its heart for the man who was its most famous resident for decades
Jyoti Basu had been effaced. The people remained no longer with him.
It is difficult for someone like me, who grew up in the shadow of his rule, to remain unemotional about Jyoti Basu. His name would be taken when the power went out. So would it be taken when stuck in a CPM maha-micheel (grand procession)-induced traffic jam or at home during a ‘spontaneous’ Bandh. As it would be invoked every day in the morning when looking over the newspaper, eyes running over stories of flight of investment capital, police malfeasance or while hearing infuriating stories of deserving candidates being passed over in academia and administration because they did not belong to the ‘party’. This perhaps explains why, barring a few exceptions, the coverage of Jyoti Babu’s death has been so negative (an example here and another here), that is even more surprising given our cultural proclivity for speaking softly about those that have passed on.
However in the middle of all the angst and villification, one would do well to remember that it was not Jyoti Basu who physically blocked the thoroughfares during work or who stayed at home, snoozing happily during a Bandh day. It was not Jyoti Basu who, overwhelmingly voted for his party, year after year. While it would be easy to say ‘CPM rigged elections’ the truth remains that for three decades, the CPM genuinely had the overwhelming mandate of the people of Bengal. It was they who validated everything Jyoti Basu did.
There is no getting around the fact that Jyoti Basu’s reign, as supreme and uncontested as it was, persisted only because he managed to tap into something very close to the heart of his subjects. And that was the overtly emotional core of the Bengali, the romanticization of poverty and passionate support for those perceived as underdogs. Some leaders bring out the best in their people. Jyoti-Babu unfortunately brought out the worst.
People not of the state would perhaps marvel at how much of Basu’s speeches concerned Cuba, US imperialistic designs, Palestine and Israel, CIA plots to destabilize the country and the evil designs of the capitalist class and how eagerly people lapped it up, quite oblivious to the decrepitude of his neighbourhood or the fact that there had been no development in the state for years. Calling himself Sarboharar neta or the leader of the dispossessed, Basu was able to spin Bengal’s poverty as a bizarre ‘badge of honor’ —capitalists avoided the state because here, we people, principled and ‘awake’ as we are, do not put up with their exploitative shit and Bengalis are jobless because the Center is furthering the World Bank’s /Dr. Evil’s agenda.
And people bought this. Hook, line and sinker.
Encroachers on private land became revolutionary heroes, our local Bangali Sandanistas.
Illegal Bangladeshi migrants were excused with the “Oh they are poor people crossing the border to serve as plumbers, masons and odd-jobs-men. Surely we cannot be as dis-compassionate as to slam the door in their faces”.
CPM goons running unlicensed shops that sprouted on city footpaths, forcing people to walk on roads and blocking genuine shops, came to be glorified as ‘poor people just trying to make a living.’ with any attempt to displace them being perceived as ‘big business influencing public decision-making’.
Of course Basu’s reign was not built on just touchy-feely. It was a masterful enterprise built on the infiltration of the party into every aspect of the administration and the democratization of corruption whereas everyone in the party was allowed to benefit from the fruits of power, no one too much that it became an embarrassment and no one too little that he felt slighted. And when the ‘soft’ approach did not work, there was always some other means available to make people see the party way.
Another of Basu’s pillars of support was that he was a bhodrolok, classy and understated, not crude and crass. Bengalis felt pride that our Chief Minister, unlike his fellow chief ministerial colleagues, did not have hair sticking out his nostrils, knew which wine went with lobster, was impeccably turned out in white dhoti and kurta, did not play chaddi-phad Holi, did not get weighed in gold at public functions and did not expect ministers to roll on the ground and touch his feet as a gesture of obeisance. Now chief ministers who expected their sycophants to write their names in blood may have been doing a better job at administering than our man, but that was irrelevant for Basu’s constituents.
Of course in conversations, people grumbled about Basu, made jokes about his summer trips to London and the Bengal Lamp scandal with the rider that such small things happen in politics—at least our Jyoti-babu does not take kickbacks in millions from arms contractors or get caught smuggling watches.
The first major blow to Basu’s emotional connect with his subjects happened during the ill-fated Operation Sunshine, an attempt to clean up the hawkers who had illegally set up semi-permanent structures on the footpaths forcing people to walk on the road for years, causing traffic snarl-ups and accidents. Concentrated primarily in Sealdah and Gariahat, two places coincidentally where there were powerful Congress hawker’s unions, it was a PR disaster for Basu. As bulldozers razed to the ground illegal constructions, people were aghast, not at the fact that such operations had been allowed to continue for years but because their beloved Jyoti Basu was behaving like a capitalist, kicking the stomachs of poor people.
It was at this point of time, with the game on the line, that a champion went for the ball. While the police backed by CPM muscle laid siege to Gariahat crossing (I stayed nearby so I saw this firsthand) and with the Congress, typically outnumbered and vacillating, one woman rushed right into the action almost daring the police and the CPM to bring her down. Who was this courageous lady in white, standing up for the underdogs and rushing into the paths of bulldozers, the same lady who had her head split open by CPM goons years before, undeterred and brave?
Bengal was to find out soon.
Mamata-didi, Jyoti Basu’s bete noire, became his biggest disciple in terms of following in exactly his footsteps. From then on, it was she who had the inside track to the Bengali heart faithfully regurgitating the rhetoric and disruptive mode of agitation that had served Basu so well in his struggling days with the Bangla Congress and SS Ray. With Basu’s successor Buddhadeb’s attempt to at least partially break with the Jyotian tradition and bring investment, development and other cusswords into the state, Mamata’s Jyoti Basu avatar became even more potent. There was one aspect in which she lagged—-she lacked Basu’s urbane educated appeal (which is very important in Bengal). She realized this and that explains her much lampooned ‘PhD from East Georgia’ (link), her attempts to sing “Aaye Mere Bhoton Ke Logon” in her “My bhoice is bhary choked” appearance on Saregama and her adventures in poetry [Link], efforts that would make Wordsworth ‘stop here and gently pass’ (Sample: Until and unless we change such politics, Politics will be lost in its own whirlpool of politics).
But then with Nandigram and Singur and with the total endorsement given to her by worthies like Mahasweta Devi and other assorted intellectuals, Didi has filled up that lacunae.
She is now finally ‘there’. Ready to step into the shoes of the man who, with absolutely no democratic challenge to his authority, for twenty-three continuous years ruled a state. A state that has still not changed its fundamental character.
And so while one may think that an era has ended, the truth remains that it is just beginning. Again.
Jyoti Basu is dead. Long live Jyoti Basu.