As in life, Jyotibabu was astoundingly lucky in death.
So Jyotibabu is gone. He will one day be judged by history (indeed, the process has already vigorously started), and one suspects that it will not be too kind a judgement. He served longer as the chief minister of a state than any other Indian, and no other CM has ever ruled with such an undisguised iron fist. More civilians have possibly died in officially-ordered police firing during his rule than anywhere else in India. His policies made sure that industrial capital fled, as did the cream of young educated Bengalis, in search of job and career. He replaced them with several generations of unemployable people, because he had banned English in all government-aided schools till Class VI. Yet, he never lost an election, a remote and inscrutable figure, who hardly ever interacted with common people, took luxurious summer holidays in England, but remained a “people’s leader” till the very end.
In 1995, a Kolkata cab driver told me: “This man is the luckiest person on earth. If he just starts digging the earth anywhere, he will 100 per cent strike gold.”
As in life, so in death. The timing of his death is Jyoti Basu’s parting shot to all his critics, the final proof that, communist or not, he was born under some very powerful stars. In the nine years since he stepped down as CM, the Left Front in West Bengal has steadily crumbled under the weight of his political, economic and social legacy. Buddhadeb’s downfall has been the direct result of his trying to loosen the state from the Gordian knots Basu had tied it up in, so that the people of West Bengal could have a better quality of life. But the knots had been secured over 23 years, and won’t come off that fast, for Jyotibabu had changed the very mentality of a race, turning a progressive people into frogs in the well. Yet, no criticism was ever directed at him as he rested at home. And he chose to die before the Assembly polls, when the Left Front may well lose its majority. The man responsible for running a prosperous state into the ground, departs untouched, and before he could be exposed to the collapse of his life’s work. He goes, revered and lionised, leaving millions of devoted disciples in the lurch, and without a paddle.
A successful life deserves an appropriate death. But few are as lucky as Jyotibabu.
Jayaprakash Narayan led a political revolution that fired up the nation and saw the first non-Congress government at the Centre. Yet, already very ill, he lived on to see his dreams shatter, his movement implode, and helplessly watched Mrs Gandhi come back to power in 1980. The same happened to former PM VP Singh, who not only saw his dreams fail, but also passed away during the 26/11 attack, so the news of the loss was relegated to the inside pages of newspapers.
Mrs Gandhi’s death by assassination, however, was more in Jyotibabu’s line. Few remember today that at the time of her death, her popularity had reached a nadir after her failed attempt to topple the NT Rama Rao government in Andhra. Elections were coming, and there was a possibility the Congress might lose. But her death wiped all that out, and we remember her as the dragon lady of India, a martyr to the nation’s cause.
This week’s papers are full of news about George Fernandes’ long-estranged wife and son coming back to take charge of his life. Fernandes, in the late stages of Alzheimer’s, is in no state to figure out what is happening. He has apparently been made to give his thumbprint to various legal documents, and in a terrible ignominy for a lifelong socialist and atheist, has been taken to Baba Ramdev’s ashram in Hardwar for treatment. What a fate for one of the most colourful and courageous politicians of independent India.
How many of us can ever hope to get just the right death, like Jyotibabu?
Sandipan Deb is an IIT-IIM graduate who wandered into journalism after reading a quote from filmmaker George Lucas — “Everyone cage door is open” — and has stayed there (in journalism, not a cage) for the past 19 years. He has written a book on the IITs.