A Marxist and a Gentleman
By Vijay Prashad
From Himal South Asian
Jyoti Basu (1914-2010) slipped into the night. He was a lifelong Marxist and Communist, and was the Chief Minister of Bengal from 1977 to 2000. Basu's service to Communism and to Bengal was equivalent: he wavered from neither.
Indian Communism reached an impasse in the 1970s, with the moderate CPI afflicted by its too close an association with the Emergency, and the reckless Naxalites undone by their misreading of the historical moment. The CPM, which was formed in 1964 with Jyoti Basu as one of its original Politburo members (the last to die), assessed Indian democracy as important enough to take seriously, to use its institutions and its Constitutional commitments to the fullest, while offering a sustained critique of its limitations. Mass organizing to build a viable alternative to the class domination of the democratic institutions was essential, and it was to this end that Basu and others like him had committed their lives over the course of the middle years of the Twentieth Century (Basu began his Communist work with the railway men's union).
In 1977, after ten years of united front work, opportunity knocked. The Communists had built a wide coalition in Bengal thanks to the grassroots work among the workers and peasants. This bloc presented the CPM and its allies with the majority in the State government. Basu was elected to lead the government. He held that post for twenty-three years, leading the Left Front to several successful elections. Aided by his comrades Harekrishan Konar and Benoy Choudhury, Basu initiated the most successful campaign of Indian Communism: the land reform and tenancy registration campaigns of the 1970s and 1980s. It was here that Basu's Bengal was able to demonstrate the vitality of a state government, even with its limited state powers (as opposed to the central government's power). A Communist government genuinely committed to the well-being of the masses was capable of much more than a bourgeois government, even when restricted by bourgeois legalism. In 1978, Basu told a reporter, "Under the Indian constitution, we cannot make the kind of basic changes that are needed. If we assumed national power in Delhi, things would be very, very different. But for now we must be content to make whatever small improvements we can in the lives of the poor people, to make life more livable."
Additionally, Basu's Bengal proved that the Naxalite adventure was unnecessary to push forward both reformist policies and non-reformist reforms; the latter are those that push the system to its limits. Mass enthusiasm for the land reforms and the tenancy registration campaign helped raise the productivity of Bengal's agriculture. Between 1950 and 1960, the compound annual rate of growth in rice production was a measly 1.01%; between 1980 and 1995, the rate rose to 5.03%. As Amartya Sen put it in 1992, "West Bengal - with a growth rate of over 7 percent per annum in agricultural value added - more than two and a half times the national average - can be described as the agricultural success story of the 1980s." Neither the Soviet Russian example nor the Chinese Maoist one was to be the model for India; the Indian Communists had to find their own method, and in the slogan of "govern and mobilize," they were able to establish a sensible path.