Former chief economic advisor to the Government of India, World Bank economist, finance minister of West Bengal at a turning point, activist, poetry fan, little magazine publisher, acerbic columnist — Ashok Mitra was many things to many people. But he will be best remembered for two gimlet-sharp sentences: “I am not a gentleman. I am a communist.” That binary, as uncompromising as its author’s politics and ethics, came to define Mitra, but it was only true of his professional life. He is criticised, for instance, with giving the Economic & Political Weekly a strongly leftward tilt after the tenure of the founder, Sachin Chaudhuri. But in person, he was a gentleman, a gracious host at his apartment in Alipore, Kolkata, and an engaging intellect willing to listen to competing opinions — because one must listen before one can tear them apart.
Besides, his communism was ethical and contextual, not adherence to a party line. He parted ways with the CPM in 1986 pleading an “allergy”, almost 10 years after he joined hands with them as an independent MLA. In the interim, he had been a good communist, extracting as much as possible from the Centre while launching ferocious attacks on a Congress(I) regime for milking the states for revenue. That rhetoric was picked up by other aggrieved states, and contributed to redefining Centre-state relations.
Naturally, Mitra ridiculed straight-up capitalism as a solution for our region, the abandoned economic zone of a capitalist empire. But he also execrated communist populism and torpedoed a hugely popular ponzi scheme, alienating the middle class, which lost its savings. A man with so many targets is likely to make enemies. He himself had only one — the deep poverty in which his country, his state and his home city were mired, as if for ever.