People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 27

July 07, 2013


Lal Salam Comrade Jyoti Basu


Sitaram Yechury


JULY 8, 2013 marks the beginning of the birth centenary of Comrade Jyoti Basu. 


Even though all of us are aware of the inviolable law of Nature that once life is born, it has to cease to exist one day, this remains, universally, the most difficult inevitability to come to terms with.  Comrade Jyoti Basu’s absence,  particularly in today’s circumstances, is felt in every turn and twist. Yet, in his absence, it is incumbent on our part to carry forward his legacy to advance the objective for which he contributed all his life – the establishment of socialism in India and eventually in the world. 




Jyoti Basu’s seven decade long political life is synchronous with the evolution of modern India.  For this very reason, he was always a source of inspiration and a `role model’ for the younger generation.  His legacy will continue to be such a source.  He, truly, was one of the legends of modern India, not only of the Communist movement. 


Having gone to England to return as a Bar-at-Law, he was attracted to the Communist worldview, embraced the ideology and returned to India in 1940 not to don the black robes but to plunge directly into the freedom struggle by joining the Communist Party. Karl Marx had once said that when an idea grips the minds of the masses, it becomes a material force. The desire for independence from British rule had gripped the Indian masses when Jyoti Basu joined the Communist movement. He, however, was thinking ahead of what should be the character and content of independent India.  The political independence that would be achieved needed to be converted into the true economic independence of every Indian. This meant the creation of a socialist society where exploitation of man by man simply ceases to exist.  It is with this passion that remained undiluted till the end that he served the  Indian people.  During the course of his long and illustrious life, he had to face many trials and tribulations but the commitment to the cause, however, never wavered.  He is a `role model’ precisely for this reason: sheer power of his commitment to his convictions.


Modern India, post independence, was evolving through major struggles that led eventually to the integration of the feudal princely States into the Indian Union.  The struggles led by the Communists brought to the fore the agenda of land reforms and the abolition of feudal zamindari and other land tenure systems.  This was also the period when the various linguistic nationalities in India which had united in the struggle for freedom, were seeking their distinct identity.  A process that finally led to the linguistic reorganisation of the Indian States in 1956. 


Jyoti Basu's political evolution converged  with the evolution of modern India based irrevocably on the premise that the recognition and celebration of India's diversity can only be on the basis of its secular democratic foundations.  


Jyoti Basu's firm commitment to our country's secular democratic character and administrative structures  remained a constant feature of his work and activities.  As communal forces represent the very antithesis of this evolution of modern India, Jyoti Basu worked to isolate and defeat the communal forces and strengthen the secular polity. 


Simultaneously, his entire concentration was on  carrying forward the struggle to convert India's political independence into economic independence for its people – socialism.  Within the Indian Communist movement, however, a very intense ideological battle erupted on how this was to be achieved.  Steering clear and battling against both the  right and left deviations, Jyoti Basu, alongwith his other comrades who eventually formed the CPI(M), adopted the correct line of combining parliamentary and extra parliamentary activity and struggles to achieve this objective.    Jyoti Basu excelled in using parliamentary democracy, its institutions and fora for both advancing this struggle and simultaneously providing greater relief to the people.


The implementation of land reforms, the deepening of democracy by developing the panchayati raj institutions and the articulation of the need for better centre-state relations to strengthen India's federal character were some of his  important contributions to the process of the consolidation of modern India.  These apart, he was one of the first to constitute separate ministries for environment and science and technology. 


Apart from all these, the main facet of Jyoti Basu's personality that attracted people towards him was his unassailable faith in them.  He would always urge the Party and its cadre to go to the people and explain to them what we are doing and take them into confidence. This faith in the people was the strength of his credibility. They never questioned or even doubted his integrity. 




Jyoti Basu voluntarily demitted office of the chief ministership in West Bengal, in 2000, after a record tenure of 23 long years, setting new standards of political culture and morality in India. The Polit Bureau of the CPI(M) had accepted his desire to step down since he was not satisfied with not being able to discharge his administrative responsibilities as he was  capable of doing earlier. In an atmosphere where the lust for power has seldom seen people demitting office on such considerations, this had come as a breath of fresh air.


When Jyoti Basu took over as chief minister in 1977, the poverty ratio in West Bengal was nearly 52 per cent. In 1994, this had come down to 26 per cent, a decline of 4.2 per cent per year. West Bengal thus ranked the first, in poverty reduction, amongst all states in India. Incidentally, the state ranking second is Kerala, with 3.7 per cent decline per year. (source: India: Policies to Reduce Poverty, World Bank, 2000).  In comparison, the rate for Maharashtra was 2.7 percent and in 1994 43.5 per cent of its population lived in poverty.


Similarly, in terms of annual rates of growth of the Gross state Domestic Product, West Bengal ranked No 3, behind Gujarat and Maharashtra with a 6.9 per cent growth per annum. Between 1991-92 and 1997-98 in per capita terms, it stood once again in third place following Gujarat and Maharashtra with a 5.04 per annum increase. (source: Montek Singh Ahluwalia, EPW, May 6, 2000).


Phenomenal advances have been made in the sphere of  agriculture. During this period, West Bengal was transformed from being a chronic heavy food deficit state into one with surplus. By the time Jyoti Basu demitted office, it became the highest rice producing state in the country. West Bengal contributed nearly 20 per cent of the increase in rice production in the entire country. The yield per hectare has also shown substantial increase. More than 90 per cent of the state's agricultural holdings belong to marginal and small farmers, as a result of the success of Operation Barga.  As a result of the successful implementation of land reforms, noted economist Dr Nilakant Rath then analysed that the growth in per capita net domestic product of the agricultural production between 1981-82 and 1994-95 went up by 22 per cent for the whole of India but in West Bengal it went up by a whopping 70 per cent. In 1981-82, West Bengal was amongst the lowest in the country with its per capita net agricultural product being 18 per cent lower than the all India average. By 1994-95, it was above the all India average by about 10 per cent.


These phenomenal achievements in agriculture have once again validated the position that land reforms are not an exercise meant only to achieve distributive rights. While achieving this they also unleashed rapid leaps in productivity which go a long way in reducing the overall levels of poverty.


In terms of distributive justice, it merits repetition that during Jyoti Basu's tenure as chief minister, 13 lakh acres of agricultural land were distributed amongst the landless. These were illegally held by vested interests in the past. Even if a nominal value of Rs One lakh per hectare is considered, then the value of the land distributed would be to the tune of  Rs 13 crore. Such has been the dimension of asset redistribution in West Bengal in favour of the poor and landless.


Thus by all counts, West Bengal during these 23 years under Jyoti Basu's stewardship had shown that it is possible to both alleviate poverty and stimulate growth. But, one should not miss the wood for the trees. All this was possible not because Jyoti Basu or the Left Front government blindly embraced the economic policies of liberalisation. This was possible because they made one fundamental departure from the economic philosophy of liberalisation. And that is in the decisive role of State intervention in achieving the objectives and priorities. Contrary to the liberalisation pundits who advocate the withdrawal of the State from the economic sphere and abdication by the State of its social responsibilities, the Left Front government in West Bengal has played the role of the catalyst in stimulating economic development and the role of the initiator in generating sweeping agrarian reforms.




During my association with Comrade Jyoti Basu in our Party’s Central Committee for over two and a half decades, there are many admirable qualities of his that need to be emulated.  One, is his unassailable faith in the power of reasoning based on the Marxist outlook.  No argument can ever be won with him on the basis of passion or emotions. 


The other facet of his personality is humaneness.   During  these years, I had on a few occasions travelled abroad with him, when he held the office of the chief minister.  Being the chief minister of West Bengal, he,  naturally,  was entitled to a preferential treatment. But, he always preferred  to travel with other comrades and, till his last day in office, travelled only in the economy class of Indian Airlines.  During such visits, he would, forever, be concerned about the welfare of the other comrades always by taking interest in their comforts and needs. I have, for instance, never seen him losing his patience even once!


Another enduring quality of his was a self-imposed discipline with which he conducted his personal and political life.  He displayed the rearest of soldier-like quality when his opinion in 1996 to accept the offer to become the prime minister in the United Front government  was rejected by a majority of the Central Committee.  Subsequently, the Party Congress at Kolkata in 1998 had endorsed the Central Committee majority opinion.  Notwithstanding his personal opinion, he, till the end, upheld the majority view  and worked steadfastly discharging his responsibilities.  Such steadfast loyalty to the organisational principles of a Communist Party and its strict norms of discipline is a quality that the younger generation needs to emulate. 


Comrade Jyoti Basu had a unique sense of humour.  In September 1993, both of us travelled to Cuba at the invitation of the Communist Party of Cuba for meetings with Fidel Castro and the Party leadership.  We travelled via the Spanish capital, Madrid. On our return journey, we had a full day waiting to catch the flight back to India.  The Indian Ambassador to Spain asked if there was anything in particular we would like to see in Madrid.  Comrade Jyoti Basu looked at me. I said that since the original `Guernica’ of Picasso was in a museum in Madrid, it would be nice to see that.  This conversation was on our way to Cuba. However, when we returned to Madrid, Comrade Jyoti Basu was not really feeling up to the mark to visit the museum. He suggested that I should however go. Upon which the Indian Ambassador said that the museum was being specially opened, on its scheduled off day, for Jyoti Basu.  Hearing this, JB said, “How would they recognise Jyoti Basu as they had never seen him before! Let Sitaram go, they would not know the difference!”  Eventually I did go alone, the museum was opened and I saw the `Guernica’!




The consolidation of the modern Indian Republic and elevating the much required bar of political morality can be achieved only by pursuing this course as  lived by Jyoti Basu.  The strengthening of the secular democratic foundations and, importantly, to complete the unfinished task of converting  the political independence of the country into the true economic emancipation of the people, will define the contours  of such a consolidation.  The widening hiatus between `shining' and `suffering' India needs to be overcome.


This, in turn, requires, from all of us, the strengthening of the spirit of selfless service to the people and the country.  Pledging his body to serve medical science, Jyoti Basu on April 4, 2003, wrote : “As a Communist, I am pledged to serve humanity till my last breath.  I am happy that now I will continue to serve even after my death.”


Jyoti Basu's indomitable fighting spirit that he displayed all his life was there to be seen in his death as well.  Running his 96th year when he was brought to the hospital with pneumonia, medical science and doctors, naturally, saw not much hope.  Jyoti Basu, as always, was to surprise everybody.  For 17 days, the fight continued.  `Never say give up' sums up the spirit of his life.


He is the last of the original nine member Polit Bureau to leave us – the navaratnas that founded the CPI(M) and steered it  through very troubling and exacting times.  The only homage that we can pay to Comrade Jyoti Basu is by redoubling our resolve to carry forward the struggle for human emancipation and liberty to its logical conclusion. 


Lal Salam Comrade Jyoti Basu.