DEMOCRACY and communism share an uneasy relationship. In the Soviet Union,the Bolsheviks came to power temporarily when they got a majority in the Petersburg Soviet in October 1917. But in December,when elections were held for the Constituent Assembly,they failed to win a majority but Lenin overrode the election results. Ever since,the Marxists-Leninists have distrusted and denigrated electoral democracy,except when it assured them a 99 per cent majority.
It was not always like this. For instance,the German Social Democratic Workers Party,the original Marxist party,contested elections to the Reichstag but never held office till after the First World War. Their brief sojourn in power was the Weimar Republic which was the happy and chaotic prelude before Hitler stopped all fun and games. The French Communist Party did not do too badly after the Second World War either and the Italian Communist Party got into some winning coalitions in the 1980s.
No other Communist Party has been as successful at democratic elections in a multi-party system as in India. In Kerala,the CPI made history in 1957 by coming to power democratically though only to be arbitrarily dismissed by Panditji. But it was in West Bengal,that the CPM and the Left Front wrote communisms golden chapter. To be in power for 32 years is a record and the credit goes largely to the man whose health has become the concern of all political party leaders: Jyoti Basu.
Basu,who served as chief minister for 23 years after winning five elections,is the longest serving leader in India. At the centre,Nehru managed 17 years and Indira Gandhi 16 years but Jyoti Basus record is unlikely to be beaten for a long time to come. His career in Bengal politics goes back even longer as he was a member of the pre-independence Bengal Provincial Assembly and was among those who chose Partition for Bengal. (The Muslim members chose a united Bengal within Pakistan as an option). Thus,when he retired and handed over the reigns to Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee,Jyoti Basu had been around for 60 years. That is another record,which is unlikely to be beaten.
He could also have been the first Communist to be the Prime Minister of India in 1996 but his Party would not allow it. That was a historic blunder. He could have been the person who would have held a fractious bunch of prima donnas together. Who knows he may have even managed for the coalition to last five years in power and delayed,if not prevented,the BJP from winning.
Bengalis,especially those in the Left,have a reputation for philosophising. Jyoti Basu is unusual since he is not known for any theoretical doctrine among the Communists. In fact,it is EMS or A.K Gopalan,who we remember as theorists. Jyoti Basu is a doer,a reconciler,a chairman of committees. It cannot have been easy to keep the Left Front together for all those years,especially,while facing opposition farther out left from the Naxals. That may be perhaps why he did not turn to reversing the industrial decline of West Bengal till the 1990s.
I recall coming to Calcutta in the company of Lord John King of the British Airways (BA) along with a bunch of British businessmen on the resumption of BA London-Calcutta flights. Jyoti Basu got a large part of his cabinet together to meet us. But his message was not one of supplication. He came to warn us of inter-capitalist rivalry. Come soon,he told the British,lest the others-the Americans and the Germans beat you to it. Alas,it did not do the trick.
Often,he would stop by at the London School of Economics (LSE) on his way to the US for medical treatment. We would give him lunch during which the faculty members could witness this great phenomenon. He would then give a lecture to a packed houseful of students. But he shocked them when in answer to a question about the Tiananamen events,he said: If you open the window,flies get in.
A Democrat,but ever a Communist.