India desperately needs charismatic and respected political leaders who can lead coherent policy-based opposition to the Congress Party and its coalition governments. Only two men have qualified for this statesman role in recent years. One is Jyoti Basu of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), who died yesterday aged 95. The other is Atal Bihari Vajpayee, 85, a former prime minister and leader of the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), who is in ill health and is no longer politically active.
Both Vajpayee and Basu (left) could have ranked alongside earlier leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, but they never managed to achieve the same stature because they were held back by their parties’ limitations.
Vajpayee provided the Hindu-nationalist BJP with an acceptable friendly face, fudging and slowing down its harsher policies and leading a coalition government from 1998 to 2004.
But, though he undoubtedly had statesmen status and is sorely missed by the now-directionless BJP, his party’s lack of nationwide-acceptability limited his role. (His colleague at the top of the BJP, Lal Krishna Advani, 82, never gained the same level of respect as a statesman and is now sidelined).
Basu was similarly hemmed in by the CPI(M) which threw away an historic opportunity to grow and lead the country when it refused in 1996 to allow him to become prime minister of a coalition government that was then being formed. (The job went to two far less significant politicians, each for a year – Deve Gowda from Karnataka and then Inder Kumar Gujral from Punjab). That confined Basu to his base in West Bengal, where he was chief minister for 23 years till he retired in 2000, remaining active in party politics till recently.
The political development of India’s Left, and indeed of the country’s whole political landscape, could have been different if the CPI(M) polit bureau had allowed Basu to take the job. Basu later described it as a “historic blunder” because the opportunity would not be repeated, adding “We thought that even if we last for (just) one year in that coalition, with myself as prime minister and our party joining it, then people would understand……what we are all about”.
Many people might think that India was lucky to be spared learning what the CPI(M) was “all about”, but the country needs a coherent national Leftist party or grouping and does not currently have one. The Congress is proud of parading what it regards as its socialist roots, but the party haphazardly pushes economic liberalisation and other policies that are often geared more to pleasing vested interests and filling the politicians’ pockets than following a constructive socialist agenda.
As Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, who knew Basu well, said yesterday, making him prime minister would have helped that to integrate the CPI(M) with India’s national politics. He added that Basu would have been a “good leader” – a point made by many commentators in the last couple of days. Other friends who knew him talk of a charming companion with a dry sense of humour, a love of whisky - and of PG Wodehouse.
The popular image of the CPI(M) led-Left at the time was of a Luddite party that blocked economic reforms and foreign investment, and encouraged labour strife. But Basu was leading West Bengal into a new phase of co-operation with capitalism and foreign investment, and curbing militant trade unionism. That is the approach he would have brought to Delhi – where the Left continues to oppose economic reforms because it is not in power. (Elsewhere its only power base is in Kerala where it plays a largely negative role in state politics).
While he was West Bengal’s chief minister, Basu introduced important reforms to help the poor, especially land reform and the development of panchayats (local village councils). That helped the CPI(M) and its allies to stay in power – buttressed by extensive ballot-rigging and repressive and often violent power tactics that have become evident over the years – especially in crises over use of agricultural land for industry and in last year’s general election campaign.
The Left’s failure to govern effectively in recent years has also allowed a Maoist-inspired Naxalite rebellion, which covers over a third of India’s administrative districts, to regain a hold over parts of West Bengal where it began as a peasant revolt 40 years ago.
Basu’s gradual withdrawal from politics in the past few years has left a gap at the top of the CPI(M) that his successor, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, has proved himself unable to fill. The Left is rapidly losing support and will find it hard to hold onto power in state assembly elections next year – especially because, for the first time for decades, it will not have Basu to lean on.
Basu’s legacy – dictated by his party and his successors – is sadly therefore one of lost opportunities: the prime minister who never was; the party leader who was not able to build a national base; and a West Bengal government whose failings have opened the way for a violent rebellion. But he will still be remembered as one of India’s great politicians.