Asok Ghosh, the veteran Forward Bloc leader who passed away at the age of 93 on Thursday, was the last of the first generation Left wing leaders in West Bengal who had mastered the art of coalition politics. His contemporaries who exited the scene earlier included Jyoti Basu and Promode Das Gupta of the CPM, Makhan Paul of the RSP, and Somnath Lahiri and Biswanath Mukherjee of the CPI. These leaders and Ghosh had evolved and practised a political culture that saw the Left Front ruling West Bengal for a record 35 years.
Ghosh, one of the chief architects of the Left consolidation in Bengal, held the post of general secretary of the state unit of the All India Forward Bloc —- the party founded by Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose in 1939 —- for a record 61 years, from 1951 till his death. It is a feat unparalleled in Indian politics.
Only others who come close to Ghosh’s record tenure as the party chief are M Karunanidhi, who has been heading the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) since 1969, and Prakash Singh Badal, who has been leading SAD since 1957.
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Ghosh used to be compared with another national leader —- Atal Behari Vajpayee —- for an entirely different reason. With severe problem of eyesight, Ghosh was always seen sitting in his chair with his eyes shut and used to respond to queries taking long pause. His party colleagues and other leaders would jokingly say: “If Vajpayeeji took 60 seconds to answer a question, Ghosh’s response time was no less than 90 seconds”.
But his alertness and the power to assess a situation was unmatched, often laced with humour, wit and sarcasm. An though his role had been restricted to the party organization, he was the last word for the comrades – in the state as well as on the national scene.
Interestingly, Ghosh’s political indoctrination towards Left ideology had come from Prafull Chandra Sen — the Indian National Congress leader with whom he was in jail for nearly 6 months in 1943.
Ghosh was formally elected as the AIFB’s West Bengal state general secretary in 1951. The expertise of his political manouverings became evident when he played a key role in bringing together the United Left Front (ULF) and the Progressive United Left Front (PULF) in 1966-67 to form the first coalition Left government in Bengal called the United Front. It was the first non-Congress government in West Bengal, which ran for some time before disintegrating.
Ten years later, in 1977, he once again played a pivotal role with Jyoti Basu, Promode Dasgupta, Biman Bose and Biswanath Mukherjee to stitch together the Left Front in West Bengal.
As the Left Front went through stress and strain in its formative years, Ghosh was a great cementing power, always keeping his cool and forcefully upholding the cases of the smaller partners in the coalition. In one of the Brigade Ground rallies, Ghosh’s speech exhorting the cadres to “preserve the unity of the Left like the way you preserve and protect your eyes (Apnara choker monir moto Left Front unity ke raksha karun),” became a popular slogan. Jyoti Basu borrowed this line and would repeat it in every public rally that he held.
Gosh’s demise comes at a juncture when coalition politics in West Bengal seems poised for a paradigm shift after the arch political rivals – the CPM in particular and the Left Front in general and the Congress are looking for grounds for an “unofficial understanding and cooperation” to fight the assembly polls and dislodge the “fascist” Mamata Banerjee government.
Ghosh was one of the very few Left leaders who had a very cordial relation with Mamata. The relation between the two, say close aides to Ghosh was one of deep understanding and respect for each other. Ghosh happened to be a dissenting voice within the LF after the police firing killed 13 people in Nandigram in March 2007. Rathin Mitra, the Editor of Lokmat, an AIFB weekly, recalls how Ghosh had rushed to a LF committee meeting at Alimuddin Street and asked: “Who had ordered the police firing?” Then chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee reportedly had owned the responsibility and replied: “It was me.”
Ghosh continued to criticize the police atrocities in Nandigram and also in Singur and went to the extent of organizing a convention at the Mahajati Sadan and invited Mamata, whose agitation was at its peak. Mamata turned up at the convention and thanked the veteran leader for his initiatives and support.
Ghosh and Mamata kept a lifeline open between them and would often talk and discuss issues. She would turn up at his birthdays to wish the ailing leader. No wonder, the state government volunteered to carry out the last rites of the departed leader with full state honours.