Saturday, January 30, 2010

Jyoti Basu and his ‘respectful’ detractors

Jyoti Basu, the nonagenarian patriarch of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) was seriously ill for the last few months. He was also too old. So, the news of his death initially did not arouse much shock but a profound sadness. This sadness will gradually creep dip by dip into the minds of the masses, from the poor countryside to affluent cities, those who have admired and respected the man and repeatedly brought him and the Left Front back to power. With every passing day, the reality of his absence will be felt more and more among his admirers as well as his critics. Beginning from the early 40’s till the recent times, the towering persona of this legendary leader of the Communist movement in India has marked an enduring imprint on the socio-political life of the nation in many significant ways, particularly in the collective psyche of an entire generation of post independence Bengal. However, he had strongly dismissed the view that he had played any special role from an individual capacity and affirmed that, “What I was and what I am is because of the party. The CPM leadership had assigned a role to me which I carried out with help from innumerable comrades.” (Source) He was a true Marxist committed to the ideology. Like a true communist he had tirelessly served his people symbolizing their aspirations, struggles and sacrifices for six decades till his last breath. Even after his death he continued to serve them by donating his eyes and body for the benefit of patients and medical science. He had learned from Lenin that democracy is indispensable to socialism and genuinely believed that “it is people, and people alone, who creates history”. He was the last living icon of a spectacular era. Now with his demise, the era has permanently come to its end. Comrade Jyoti Basu has become history himself.

The subject of this post is not about Comrade Basu or his legacy. This blogger is too minuscule to write anything about the impressive feats of this illustrious life. This post will only present the undulating media extravaganza which has followed from his final illness till his death. The post is arranged by eclectically picking up gems from the “respectful” media “homage” offered to this extraordinary man.

On one hand, a wide spectrum of the mighty Indian press has pursued its standard populist agenda by sensationalizing the persona of Jyoti Basu, flattering him as a colossus, a stalwart, an astute but bhadralok (gentleman) politician and what not? Did they hold a similar attitude for Jyoti Basu when he was at the helm of the government? It must be noted with some conviction that during his tenure, the dominant section of the Bengal press, Bengali as well as English, left no stone unturned to regularly disparage him, his government and his party by distorted or twisted news and views. Jyoti Basu was made the prime target of this hostile and contemptuous criticism that has many times gone beyond all limits of journalistic decorum towards plain impropriety. Before every election in Bengal, Chief Minister Basu and the Left Front were written off by these mischief-makers and an aura of ‘hope’ use to be propagated in favor of the opposition. This tendency became a commonplace phenomenon in Bengal just like the winning streak of the Left Front. To them, as Ashok Mitra has recently written, the communist party was a nuisance and Jyoti Basu was an integral part of that nuisance. Even when he had voluntarily retired from office, he was not spared and was subjected to ill-concealed acrimony.

All the praise and admiration that has been promoted after his death are therefore nothing but sheer duplicity. The way in which the tributes and honors are published displays an inherent design beneath. It is actually designed to ridicule the present Left leaders, particularly Prakash Karat. Corporate media loves to hate the CPI(M) general secretary. The intention is to show them as dwarfs by comparing them with the “pragmatic communist” who was free from the ‘muddle of ideology’. The ignominious tone of this media ‘homage’ is evident from the high pitch exposition of the so called ‘historic blunder’ when the “upstart” leaders of CPI(M) Polit Bureau and Central Committee opposed him to lead a coalition government in 1996. Though, the stateliness in which he had accepted his party’s decision is obviously downplayed. It looks as if Jyoti Basu as the Prime Minister of India was a much anticipated desire of these superficial media folks.

On the other side, a wide range of reproach has been planned through contract analysts and senior political pundits to bash the man from all possible angles, by any means. We find a hoard of elite ex-Kolkata denizens lamenting about their ex-Kolkata “paradise” that was turned into a hell – “a place time forgot” due to the politics exercised by Jyoti Basu and his party. Speaking on behalf of the “entire generations of educated middle-class Bengalis” who were “forced to seek refuge in other States or migrate to America” these detractors grieve for the genius Bengalis who became a prey of the “Stalinist rule” of Jyoti Basu regime and became “refugees from Bengal” due to “a contraction of opportunities, educational and economic, and a closing of the Bengali mind”. (Source) Besides, who are these well-wisher crooks who are purposely wheedling about their Kolkata days before the communists came to power and shedding crocodile tears for the “brainy” Kolkata middle-class diaspora from safer and cozy distance? They are essentially representatives of the Indian affluent class promoting its odious anti-Left values. They surely feel grateful, pleased and satisfied to be able to join the creamy section of Indian society. In their tapered vision, Kolkata embody the whole of Bengal.

From both the sides the intentions behind the tributes are similar. A candid statement like “the present history of Bengal is largely the story of Jyoti Basu” is fundamentally contemptuous. The comment is intended not really to glorify him but as a deliberate attempt to get nearer to the real point of attack – to ascertain that the story of Jyoti Basu is actually “a story of unmitigated disaster,” the story of Bengal’s pathetic “decline and decay” from “a hub of industrial and intellectual activity” into an “economic and professional backwater”. To validate their point, established analysts of the neo-liberal media have thus unambiguously relied on the phony findings of Bibek Debroy & Laveesh Bhandari, the “duty bound” economist duo infamous for their dubious study Transforming West Bengal – Changing the Agenda for an Agenda for Change. This bogus and ostensible “study” was commissioned and funded by Dinesh Trivedi, then Rajya Sabha MP from the Trinamul Congress. It was a purposeful effort on the eve of 2009 Lok Sabha polls to illustrate Bengal’s “pathetic decline” caused by “overall governance failure”. Putting the purpose behind the study into perspective, Economic Policy Editor Vivan Fernandes of CNBC-TV18 has uncovered that “the Business Standard and Economic Times quoted it as if it were an independent study. By tracing West Bengal’s decline from the 1960s, than from 1977, when the Left Front assumed power, by comparing it selectively with peers Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu and by ignoring achievements in agriculture, the authors seem anxious to prove that West Bengal is indeed, as they say, the most miserable state in India.” (Emphasis added) Fernandes found that the study was “deliberately provocative when it asserts the Left Front government is like Gangrene. It cannot be cured, and must be excised out.” (Source)

Like the above stated iniquitous report, Jyoti Basu’s death has brought out the savage teeth and nail of a variety of editors, commentators and experts who are principally anti-Left. Some among them are rather clever to present their contentions under a politesse veil. According to their sarcastic depiction, Jyoti Basu was just “a member of Calcutta’s privileged,” who wanted to “do something for the downtrodden”. A bhadralok who wore “glistening white” clothes and “invariably polished” shoes, who was fond of “good food and the sundowner” and whose only memorable contribution was to spearhead agitational politics that “resulted in the flight of capital, a complete erosion of work culture and irresponsible trade unionism.” (Source) Some among them have also tried to suggest how the persona of Jyoti Basu, previously committed to his party and the ideology, began to change “once he became firmly entrenched in power” and “acquiesced in the loot of state sources” along with party functionaries. (Source) There are also others, intensively raw and crude, those who have virtually crossed every limits of civility while lambasting Basu. Their calumny is decorated with abusive language and based on imaginary stories, fabricated reminisces, street gossips and unadorned lies. It also includes malicious personal attack by putting imaginary dialogues into selective mouths. (Source) Their style is fairly similar to the despicable approach popularized by the Trinamool chieftain Mamata Banerjee who while expressing her doubt upon Basu’s retirement had commented, “He will never retire till he expire.”

Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain and most fools do. But can these so call experts be dubbed as fools when they cunningly avoid mentioning the stride in the Bengal countryside achieved under Jyoti Basu’s leadership? The pathbreaking achievements of Operation Barga – the land reforms and redistribution program initiated by the Left Front government is either completely ignored or referred in a diminutive and inconsequential way while assessing his contribution in the obituaries,. This example is sufficient to expose the precise objective of these deceitful pundits. How can they establish their points if they focus on the unmatched achievements of Jyoti Basu government’s panchayat program that has decentralized power to the grassroot and greatly empowered the rural peasantry? Since Independence, Bengal has accounted for 22.6 per cent of the total land distributed in India as a whole, and 54.5 per cent of the total number of gainers from land distribution programmes in the entire country. Land reforms and redistribution is the single most important contributor to rural poverty reduction and in this regard Bengal’s performance is the best among any state in the country. These policies occupied the centrestage of the Left Front government’s pro-people administrative initiatives and thus have significantly improved the status of the poor, giving them a sense of social dignity. Even in recent years, as V.K. Ramachandran has observed, “the extent of agricultural land distributed under land reform in West Bengal as a proportion of land distributed in the country as a whole is 22.6 per cent.” Ramachandran has also observed that “the total number of gainers from land distribution programmes in the country, more than half – a full 54.5 per cent – are from West Bengal.” (Source) But as Paranjoy Guha Thakurta has pointed out, “Historians have selective memories. Who cares today about Operation Barga or the empowerment of panchayats?” (Source)

By delicately applying their biases and prejudices, the pundits talk about Bengal’s poor growth compared to the rest of India. These pundits will never draw attention toward Bengal’s phenomenal agricultural growth which has grown at an annual rate of 2.7 per cent – double the national rate. Instead, they prefer to vociferously babble on the ‘gherao culture’ as the foundation of industrial stagnation in Bengal but never utter that Bengal’s industrial turn down was primarily caused by the central government policies of freight equalization and industrial licensing. Doesn’t it astonish us today that it took 13 years for the Congress government at the center to clear the flagship Haldia Petrochemicals project? Since the days when the license-permit raj were lifted and liberalization opened new possibilities, from 1990s Bengal was one of the fastest growing states in India. The pundits also endlessly emphasize on the worst condition of poverty and hunger in rural Bengal compared to most other states. But the planning commission figures show an entirely different picture. Percentage of persons below poverty line in rural Bengal has declined from 73.2 per cent in 1973-74 to 28.6 per cent in 2004-05 compared to the national average of 56.4 per cent in 1973-74 to 28.3 per cent in 2004-05. Urban poverty in Bengal is 14.8 per cent compared to the national average of 25.7 per cent – the performance is even better than fast-growing states like Maharashtra and Gujarat. The Eleventh Plan document has noted that Bengal is one of the five major states that have succeeded in reducing the absolute number of the poor in rural areas over the three decades from 1973 to 2004-05.

Protecting the rights and privileges of the poor, creating the possibility for a better socio-economic condition and achieving it to some reasonable extent are certainly the most significant contributions of Jyoti Basu’s rule. There are also other social sectors where Bengal has performed well. The state has registered the lowest death rate and maternal mortality rates among all the major states and has achieved notable reductions in fertility rate. It is the first state to lower the voting age to 18, first to introduce reservation for women in elected bodies. Jyoti Basu must also be credited for his firm commitment to secularism that has established an unwavering atmosphere of communal harmony and secularism in the state.

However, responding to the new aspirations and popular demands that has emerged from the successful agrarian reforms is a far more difficult and time-consuming task. It is a fact that the Left Front government’s response in this aspect was relatively slow. The government has also somewhat failed to achieve success in areas like education, infrastructural developments and the state of the economy. Long stint in power have also developed bureaucratic habits among a section of the Left Front leadership and detached them from the people. Jyoti Basu was quite aware about these shortcomings and negative developments. He had persistently spoken about the necessity of going to the people, listening to them, explaining the reasons behind the shortcomings and sincerely admitting the mistakes. Jyoti Basu himself has done it all through his life.

All his positive achievements, and there were many, is overshadowed or ignored by the bombastic and dismissive media rhetoric which is more engrossed to focus on the “egregious blemishes” of Jyoti Basu and his tenure. Viewed objectively, most of them will turn into plain deception. Jyoti Basu’s death has once more proved the myth of media objectivity and manifested an emergent trend of corporate journalism in India. A depressing trend that deceives millions of people and indoctrinates them by promoting personal bias towards the Left in the name of “balanced reporting”. It is a dangerous trend that encourages flak criticism to disgrace an exemplary politician – one of the country’s most illustrious leaders and statesmen.

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