Lalu Prasad Yadav gets a lot of flak, and deservedly so. But in terms of being the worst Chief Minister this country has ever had, the Communist Jyoti Basu certainly takes the cake. Everyone knows about Lalu Prasad Yadav, how the ‘kidnapping industry’ flourished during his rule, and how he encouraged what one could call reverse casteism in the state of Bihar. Jyoti Basu, on the other hand, belongs to the category of politicians that are infact the most dangerous of the lot. The category of politicians that are ‘likeable’ in political circles, despite being the very contrary in practice, are the worst kind of politicians. Admittedly, most politicians from the Left side of the political spectrum enjoy this advantage of ‘like-ableness’, since they appeal to the emotions of people rather than proving their credentials by getting work done.
Jyoti Basu served as the Chief Minister of West Bengal for a period of 24 years from 1977 to 2000, and the damage he has done to the state could well be irreversible. Like an atypical communist, he effectively killed industry and business in West Bengal. Almost as if he was trying appeasement on all possible fronts, he pulled up government employees for their inefficiency and also defended them, he praised the public sector publicly and the private sector privately. West Bengal began and ended the period 1981-98 at about the same place, moving from fifth to sixth in per capita state domestic product. Among all the criteria, it performed the worst in unemployment, its rank remaining at thirteenth or third from the bottom during 1983-2001. Against this, its best performance was in infant mortality where its rank, already high at a respectable sixth, rose to fourth by the end of the 1981-2006 period. So, the best that can be said about Basu’s stewardship of West Bengal is that he was able, over the two decades, to stem the rot that had been initiated by the left movement itself from the mid-sixties.
Takeover of Institutions and Political Violence
In West Bengal under Jyoti Basu, the party assaulted and captured virtually every institution that is important for the survival of a functional democracy. Things reached such a state that you had to be a member or a sympathiser of the ‘cause’ to get a promotion or even a job. Schools and colleges were filled with teachers and professors who were more interested in the interest of the ‘party’ than the future of the students; municipal offices, lower courts, libraries, universities, panchayats and even cultural institutions were invaded by cadres who gradually came to hold complete sway over them. It was this systematic capture and destruction of institutions that helped the Marxists retain power for so long; booth capturing or rigging is so much easier when the polling officer is a comrade. The worst aspect of the above tactics is that they have become West Bengal’s legacy, as is evident from the tactics being employed by Mamata Banerjee’s TMC, which uses political violence to suppress its political opponents.
The death of entrepreneurship
Jyoti’s Basu greatest sin, however, has to be the murder of industry and business in West Bengal. Kolkata, or rather Calcutta was an industrial and business hub during the times of the British. As the European side of business started declining, the ‘Marwari’ side of business started growing. The Marwari community enjoyed this for a few year, until the Left Front came to power. In cities and towns, businessmen were seen as class enemies and the animosity took the form of militant trade unionism. Often, businessmen were the victims. Close to 30,000 industrial enterprises were closed down and more than 27,000 units became ‘sick’ in the hey days of the Basu era of ‘Marxist Pragmatism’. Militant Union culture still prevails in West Bengal, and has become part and parcel of the state’s ethos. Such an aggressive labour union culture is bound to make investors and potential industrialists shy away from the state.
BK Birla himself witnessed the ruin of one the 60’s most industrialised states in India. He says, half in sorrow and half in mockery, “What can businessmen expect but unions, strikes, threats and God knows what else. Tell me, which businessman will invest there. You know, when they are out of Bengal, the people are the most hard working, industrious and enterprising. But inside the state…you can see what happened to Bengal over the last 40 years. I don’t need to elaborate. Of course, I have always considered Calcutta my home and always will. But frankly, I don’t see a bright future for the state.”
The best and most recent example of this sentiment is the case of the Singur Tata Nano factory, which shut down and withdrew from West Bengal. Mamata Banerjee led the opposition to the functioning of the factory, and used the very same rhetoric that was used by Communists like Jyoti Basu in the state only a decade or so ago. Unsurprisingly, Ratan Tata eventually decided to set up a factory in Sanand in Gujarat, which was then ruled by the then Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who allegedly sent a single worded text message to Ratan Tata saying “Swagatham”.
The Ugly Side of the Conman
Don’t be mistaken, however, in believing that Jyoti Basu was an atypical anti Capitalist who loathed industrialists and businessmen, even though he publicly maintained so. The use of agricultural land for industrial purposes began during his time, with Falta, Haldia and Rajarhat being prime examples. Propaganda was so strong that any agitation or outrage was so harshly suppressed that the common people never really knew about the sweet deals Jyoti Basu was making with big industrialists.
Unpaid Provident Fund dues of jute mill workers amounted to Rs 5 crore in 1977. They had shot up to more than Rs 200 crore by 2000, when Jyoti Basu handed over the baton to Buddhadeb Bhattacharya (a sobering history lesson for those who think Basu was busy creating a paradise for workers and the proletariat in West Bengal).
The worst social development indicators and the worst representation in government jobs for Muslims happens to be in the ‘fanatically’ secular West Bengal . Ironically, the devoted Marxist Nurul Islam died in police firing in 1976 during a food agitation. His death played a key role in Marxists coming to power in the state in 1977. His family was subsequently abandoned by the comrades and the brothers of Nurul Islam now actively work with Trinamool Congress.
At least 13 out of the 18 major districts of West Bengal come in the category of the 100 poorest districts of India. Not a single medical college was set up during the reign of Jyoti Basu. Police firings on workers, tribals and farmers were routine during the regime. About 20 enquiry commissions were set up. Only one submitted a report whose recommendations were never implemented.
The trouble with ideological dogma
There is much more that can be proffered as evidence. But we know even voluminous tales on the misdeeds of the regime will not sway the ideologically brainwashed, who are convinced that dogma is morally superior to facts. Yet, it is very important to set the record straight. There is no doubt that future historians will marvel at the naiveté of the nostalgic outpourings after the death of Jyoti Basu when they contrast this with his actual track record. But such nostalgic naiveté can prompt India to make the kind of mistakes that Jyoti Basu and his fellow comrades, willfully or unknowingly, committed in their quest for Red glory. Quite simply, in this 21st century world of rapidly changing dynamics, India simply cannot help but renounce, abjure, condemn and castigate the legacy left behind by Basu and his Red warriors.
Bengal has lost decades of growth, social development and employment opportunities. History will be nostalgic and polite; it will inevitably declare that Jyoti Basu cannot escape his sins of omission and commission, and will go down as the worst Chief Minister the nation has seen in its history. Thanks to him, the state is still stuck a few decades in the past, both ideologically as well as in terms of progress.