Jyoti Basu had termed the CPM&’s decision of not making him the Prime Minister a ‘Himalayan blunder’. His comment was not born out of unfulfilled personal ambition or thwarted expansion plans of the party. Instead, it was rooted in his attempt to tackle the romantics in the party, writes ROMIT BAGCHI
Jyoti Basu&’s persona is supposed to have assumed tragic grandeur of almost Hamlet-like proportions after the CPI-M&’s central committee (CC) rejected the plea by several regional satraps, including Mulayam Singh Yadav, to make him the Prime Minister after the 1996 Lok Sabha election threw up a hung Parliament. Rumblings bordering on schism on the matter forced the CC to take recourse to voting to settle things out. The proposal was rejected by a 27-24 margin on 14 May 1996.
It is assumed that Basu had braced himself for taking up the challenge after a spell of procrastination. This view was reinforced by his later dubbing the decision of the party&’s decision-making body as an instance of bungling — ‘a Himalayan blunder’, as he famously termed it.
Initially, however, he was not eager to take up the gauntlet or, at least, he was caught in two minds. According to Asim Chatterjee, the Naxalite ideologue, Basu sounded singularly unenthusiastic about the prospect when the former met him on the night of 9 May to persuade him to accept the challenge in the interests of the Left forces in the country. Chatterjee quoted Basu as saying that it would be impossible to survive in the intrigue-tinged politics of Delhi. “There is no gentleman left in the camp except V P Singh. These parties are bereft of ideologies,” he had reportedly told Chatterjee. But as things progressed, he is believed to have reluctantly given in.
Now the question is — why did he criticise the CC&’s decision? It is something that stands out in his image as a stickler for discipline.
Those sympathetic to him defined it as an expression of his frustration with the possibility of expanding the party&’s influence beyond the confines of Bengal, Kerala and Tripura in the rest of the country, particularly the Hindi heartland, getting washed away perhaps forever.
But, in retrospect, with over three years having passed since his demise (January 2010), it seems that his frustration principally stemmed from his failure to mould the party-bureaucracy enough in the direction of parliamentary democracy.
Jyoti Basu and the Leninist line of using all the parliamentary institutions and canons for a greater struggle with respect to the Communist movement in India are synonymous. He had remained enamoured of the parliamentary form of struggle since the beginning of his political career that began when he became a party whole-timer in 1940 after returning from London. He was among the very few CPI leaders who had shown the gumption to challenge the extremist line as propounded by B T Randive after the latter succeeded the moderate P C Joshi as the general secretary during the party&’s second congress in Kolkata from 28 February to 6 March 1948.
“I was part of the delegation from West Bengal and was one of those who raised questions about the political thesis adopted at this congress. Many of the mistakes made by Joshi had been rectified, but, in the process, there was a hint of recklessness which had crept into the party. We felt this would harm the party. I did not get a chance to speak at the congress, but sent a questionnaire to the secretariat. The provincial secretary of Bengal, Bhabani Sen, called a meeting of the state unit the following day and those of us who had raised questions on the political thesis were asked to apologise and the contents were read out at the party congress,” he wrote in his memoirs. Basu lashed out again at those professing Naxalism years later, in 1967, calling them reckless fools detached from the reality of the Indian scene. He was against underestimating the strength of the Congress and was for a united front and formation of an alternative government through parliamentary struggle.
“According to them (the Naxalites), the government (led by the Congress) had been totally alienated from the people and was being despised…This wrong assessment led them to believe that armed revolution was the only way out and it was just a matter of time,” he wrote.
Enraged by Basu calling them nincompoops of the quixotic variety, the hard-line Naxalites used to hurl choicest of invectives against him, ranging from ‘an illegitimate son of Khrushchev and Tito’ to ‘a docile dog of Imperialism’. Chatterjee wrote that Basu became a butt of ridicule for the Naxalites when the Ananda Margis attacked him at Patna station and his security guard was killed and he got slightly injured.
“Saroj Datta, a front-ranking leader of the Left extremist movement, lampooned him, calling him a half martyr with his small finger scratched,” Chatterjee wrote. But Basu remained invincible in his conviction that the obsession with revolution was a kind of romantic tomfoolery. There are reasons to believe that he slammed the CC&’s rejection of the proposal to make him Prime Minister not because his personal ambition was thwarted or the possibility of expanding the party&’s influence was derailed; he did it because of his strong belief that the party-bureaucracy was caged in its romantic make-believe idea that revolution was around the corner and the party would propel things towards that ‘supernal’ consummation by getting into a position to control the Centre one fine day. Basu should have known that ‘there is no better or more blessed bondage than to be a prisoner of a hope’.
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