Why Jyoti Basu could not be PM
By M J Akbar
Why did Jyoti Basu describe the decision to deny him the prime minister’s office in 1997 as Indian Marxism’s “historic blunder”? He was not in love with status. He had more power in Bengal than most prime ministers have in India. He was content in Kolkata and capable of mounting an offensive from the Red Fortress that could shake the parameters of the Red Fort. V P Singh could never have become prime minister without his muscle. The decisive word in “historic blunder” is “historic”, not “blunder”. Basu realized that his party, CPI(M), had taken a wrong turn at a swivel moment in history.
A surface view might suggest that the most significant political change since 1997 has been the decline and fall of the Left, a process disguised by accidents of electoral mathematics until the slide became an avalanche three years ago. We are so hypnotized by party politics that we are unable to recognize the politics of people. The more startling fact is that the last decade has seen unprecedented growth of the Left, now a substantive presence in about 200 districts rather than in the 50-odd that used to deliver its MPs.
The difference is that Naxalites are not in the organized sector of Indian democracy. A look at their spread is to define what the CPI(M) could have been if it had not been blinded in Bengal and cockeyed in Kerala. Basu saw what his comrades did not. The Left needed a quantum leap from regional satrapies by offering leadership to the underprivileged and marginalized through the colossal power of a prime minister. A prime minister’s language, perhaps even more than his policies, sets the agenda of the nation. Basu had been weaned in the Nehru era and matured during the Indira Gandhi years. He was flexible enough to mix the high idealism of Nehru with the pragmatic diction of Indira Gandhi and the edge of Communist activism to establish a national constituency that the Left forsook in the 50s. Nor could Congress have withdrawn support to him on a flimsy excuse, as it did with Inder Gujral, without paying a heavy price in the ensuing general election. Basu had street-and-state credibility.
The CPI(M) was impelled into the “historic blunder” because of its hypocritical approach towards Delhi. It has always sought influence without responsibility. Its very junior brother, CPI, had no qualms about joining Deve Gowda’s coalition government. The CPI(M) forgets that heavy flirting does not beget babies; nor, logically, can atheists pray for immaculate conception. An analogy from the history of Marxism is irresistible: the Basu blunder was akin to Lenin telling Kerensky he had no time for the Kremlin, but pointing out that he be consulted each time Kerensky wanted to name a provisional governor. It is, perhaps, all too appropriate that the CPI(M) is Marxist and the CPI(M-L) is Marxist-Leninist.
The CPI(M) has never fully understood its own potential. When, after the split from the CPI in 1964 it rejected the Maoist-extremists of Naxalbari, and decided to work within the framework of nationalism, democracy and a bourgeoisie-capitalist economy, it became the first instance of what should be called the New Left.
The Old Left was already mired in stifling party dictatorships, and unable to recognize the temper of a world shifting towards the accountability of elections and the freedom of individual choice. As an increasingly stable democracy, but with enormous social and economic disparities, India provided the perfect environment for the creation of a New Left template. The CPI(M) was meant to use the system to whittle away its imbalances and shape a society that would never have been perfect but would certainly have been more egalitarian. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the CPI(M) could have provided an example, if not leadership, to the Left in Africa, Latin America and Asia, filling a huge vacuum that is still empty.
The fall of the Left does not mean that the world does not need a leftist voice or agenda; perhaps it has rarely needed one more urgently. As a Communist prime minister of democratic India just half a decade after the implosion of the Soviet Union, Basu would have influenced not just his own country but the world. He would have conducted a foreign policy that understood independence without being a silly, ranting, anti-American caricature.
There are substantive reasons why the epic struggle between Right and Left seems to have tipped in favour of the former. The Right has displayed the ability to compromise, in theory and practice, on the rim in order to protect the core. The Left has surrendered to demands of its core constituencies, like trade unions, even when they had become unsustainable and counter-productive.
Basu was the Cromwell that the modern Left abandoned in a fog of uncertainty.
Appeared in Times of India - December 10, 2010