Basu did not dress like a man of the masses. Jyoti Basu
did not talk like a man of the masses. Jyoti Basu did
not have any of the personal accoutrements one associates
with a man of the masses. And yet the masses loved him.
He did not seek popularity; the idea of doing so would
have repelled him. Yet popularity came to him. And it
came precisely because the idea of seeking popularity
was repugnant to him. His very "naturalness",
his very distaste for frills, was a symptom of a man
of quality; and the masses loved him because of this
quality. He had charisma because he did not seek charisma.
In fact all his remarkable traits, his courage, his
straightforwardness, his integrity, his tenacity, his
keeping faith with the masses, came "naturally"
to him. He was courageous because it would not occur
to him to be anything else. He had integrity because
this to him was the "natural" thing. He kept
faith with the masses because it would be against his
"nature" to be otherwise. Most people in life
strike poses; it is difficult not to be an actor, at
least on occasions; it is difficult not to pretend to
be different from oneself on occasions. Jyoti Basu was
remarkable because he was not a poseur, because he never
play-acted, because he never pretended to be different
from what he really was. And what he really was is a
man of quality, for whom being "cheap", being
low, being duplicitous, being manipulative and being
mendacious is simply foreign to his personality. It
is this directness that appealed to the masses. They
loved him because they could trust him. He kept his
word. He would not wilfully lead them astray; and if
he made mistakes they were genuine mistakes which he
would own up to.
And above all, he had faith in the masses. The masses
knew it and responded to his faith in them. His immense
strength, his supreme self-confidence came not because
of any specific honing of his personality, not because
of any "cultivation" of his personality. It
came from this simple alchemy between him and the masses:
each of them trusted the other; each was sure of the
otherís response to it. One may like reading detective
novels as Jyoti Basu did; one may like good food as
Jyoti Basu did; one may be England-educated and like
visiting England occasionally as Jyoti Basu did; one
may be as unascetic and as much of a bon vivant as Jyoti
Basu was; but as long as this alchemy exists one is
a "man of the masses". Being a "man of
the masses" is a matter of this alchemy, not of
dress or food or asceticism.
It is exceedingly difficult to come across a person
who combines these three qualities: "naturalness";
complete freedom from "cheapness", duplicity
and mendacity; and faith in the masses. Jyoti Basu combined
these in full measure. That is what defined him. It
was apparent in several episodes of his life, and also
in the totality of his political career.
In the late nineteen sixties during the rule of one
of the United Front governments, there was a police
revolt against the government. Rebellious policemen
attacked the state legislature building. Legislators,
including the Speaker himself, fled in all directions.
Jyoti Basu, who was in his room in the Assembly building,
kept working there, unflappable as ever. As the Home
Minister he was the prime target of the rebellious policemen,
but he stayed put. When the police mob got to his room,
the very sight of him, sitting there unflinchingly,
brought it to a halt. Then he coolly addressed them:
"You can do what you please here, but how will
you face the masses who will come for you when they
hear the news of your attack?" The mob disappeared
sheepishly. This combination of raw courage that is
almost "natural" since no other course of
action would strike him on an occasion like this, and
of faith in the masses, defined Jyoti Basu. One cannot
get away doing what one likes; one is accountable to
the masses who will come eventually.
Journalese is in the habit of crediting Jyoti Basu with
"flexibility". Underlying this "flexibility",
however, was immense courage. It was not "flexibility"
of opportunism but "flexibility" based on
principles, "flexibility" necessary in the
interests of the people, the kind of "flexibility"
that the Chinese Communists had displayed when they
had abducted Chiang Kai-shek from Xian to sign an agreement
with them to defend China against Japanese invasion.
Anyone familiar with events in West Bengal in the early-seventies
knows the immense sacrifices made by the Marxists during
the period of semi-fascist terror. Jyoti Basu had been
a witness and a victim of it. He had called off his
polling agents from the Baranagar constituency in the
face of the massive booth capturing that his opponents
had unleashed in the 1972 Assembly polls. And yet it
was Jyoti Basu who was the architect of a united front
with the very same opponents in 2004, when the UPA formed
a government at the centre supported from the outside
by the Left. And that support was steadfast; if that
government did not last its full term, it was for no
fault of Jyoti Basu and his Party.
To be able to unite even against oneís bitterest opponents
when the interests of the people so demand requires
intellectual courage of the highest order. In leading
his Party to support the UPA in order to prevent the
ascendancy of communal fascism, Jyoti Basu displayed
that rare intellectual courage, which again can come
only from a deep knowledge and understanding of the
I had met Jyoti Basu for the last time in 2005, when,
as the Conference-President-elect of the Indian Society
of Labour Economics, I had gone to invite him to inaugurate
the Conference. He agreed graciously despite poor health.
After he had spoken, deeply critical of neoliberal economic
policies and, in particular, of the introduction of
"labour market flexibility", he asked me to
send a copy of the speech to Prime Minister Manmohan
Singh. "Flexibility" of the sort Jyoti Basu
valued meant speaking truth to all, including those
whose views are opposed to yours.