Dead, yet not gone!

Jyoti Basu’s passing at the age of 96 is not exactly a tragedy. Nor was it unexpected as he was ailing for quite some time. In fact, he quit as CM in 2001 at the age of 88 on health grounds, after reigning for 23 years. Working backwards, he had become the CM at age-65, when the rest of the proletariat would have been well into retirement. Indeed, ‘late’ had stalked him like a shadow all through, and the latest ‘late’ has actually come quite late. Of course, we cant grudge him for the long life, for it is the Maker who maketh life and death. A Marxist can at best deny Him, not defy.

But our concern here is not about the lifespan of dead politicos, red or otherwise. It’s rather about their ‘life after’, when the nation gets painted red, whatever their hue. JB departed at 11.57AM, IST, Sunday. (A joke on internet goes that he has once again missed ‘PM’ very narrowly). For the next five days or so, as his body lay in State, whatever its state, it was Basu all the way, anywhere and everywhere as the screens and pages of the media overflowed with anecdotes, quotes and obituaries. To be sure, it speaks volumes on the impact and influence of a man who has presided over the fate of a State, a premier political party, several Fronts and often, the nation too, for decades at stretch. But does a Late Basu wipe out all the acts of omissions and comissions of a Living Basu, acts that had proved fateful for millions?

The overdose of eulogies would make it as if Basu was a reformer/revolutionary par excellence in the typical Marxist mould and a redeemer of West Bengal. But despite the overwhelming din, a few voices have dared to bare some dark truths about Basu as a personality and a politician. Of course, this need not be the last word on the departed leader, but certainly balances the perspective in an otherwise lopsided debate. I for one am impressed with this Devil’s advocacy and therefore I quote verbatim, particularly in the absence of first-hand intricate info on distant WB. Over to Kanchan Gupta in the Daily Pioneer: ‘The fulsome praise that is heaped on Jyoti Basu today—he is variously described by party loyalists and those enamoured of bhadralok Marxists as a “humane administrator” and “far-sighted leader”—is entirely misleading if not undeserving…. As a Bengali, I grieve for the wasted decades but for which West Bengal, with its huge pool of talent, could have led India from the front. I feel nothing for Jyoti Basu’.

Yet another columnist has declared that he had to exit Calcutta because of Basu. There are quite a few such doughty dissenters: Suman K Chakrabarti on IBN Live: ‘The Communist patriarch, will remain for me a man who killed two generations of Bengal’s talent. And paved the way for the demise of a land which held much promise for the country. A man who presided over Bengal’s industrial decline, a man who enforced an education system where millions of students learnt “A, B, C, D” after six years of schooling, a man who ensured Bengal’s brain-drain and led to the economic marginalisation and decline of the state.’

Abhijit Majumder in Mid-Day:

‘The man I grew up hating is dead. It is impossible for me to look at Jyoti Basu except through the glasses of my adolescent and early years in Calcutta. From massive cutouts, from street-corner rallies, from behind the dark windows of his car at the middle of his anaconda convoy, from the misty black drape of power cuts over sleepy colonies in winter, Basu silently watched over us.’

Now these stray but strident and wholly unconnected voices can be dismissed as personal opinions of disgruntled Calcutta elements but are they not also daringly different in a media milieu bogged down by a mob-mindset?

Let’s move from the political to the professional and, be that as it may, personal too. There is this strange, often cosmetic and even hypocritic, injunction that one should not speak ill of the dead. This inhibition is at once both self-imposed as well as a social taboo. I can’t decipher from where this streak of ‘goodness’ in an otherwise nasty world has emanated. A helpful colleague tells me that that there is a Latin saying that, well, says, ‘De mortuis nihil nisi bonum, which means Of the dead, nothing but good.’ One can probably find parallels in some other lingos and cultures too, though I am at a loss to attribute them to any authoritative source. Not certainly the familiar Thiruvalluvars, Bharathiyars, Bernard Shahs and Bertrand Russels! But suffice to say that this prohibition has stuck, particularly in my profession, probably on considerations of public palatability. But for those of us itching to dig up skeletons from politicos’ graves, particularly when the latter’s past refuses to die, such shackles are a pain. The no-holds barred critiques of Basu in that context, are indeed refreshing.

Are dead public figures beyond post-mortem? In a country that has failed to stop the slaughter of cows that it so religiously revers, many political holy cows seem to have somehow survived the often well-deserved axe! Posthumous cover and courtesy are a guarantee even for the vilest of that tribe. Forgotten or not, they are surely forgiven of their foibles. This is so even if the follies during their lifetime haunt those living long after! There are also cases where death has imparted a respect that eluded the person when alive. A sudden or violent end can even extract a martyrdom out of mediocrity. Death has also turned out to be an exoneration for many with resurrections too if followers find merit or money doing so. After all, a politician’s legacy, in independent India, is not just about the party he led from the front but also the private kitty he built on the sly!

Now, one is not exactly seeking a trial of the dead. But can’t we ever see a leader as he was without the halo of death hiding his history? In India it is impossible unless you are ready to risk the wrath of the self-appointed legatees. Mahatma Gandhi’s mahatmic attributes were more at the personal level; with due reverence to his public stature, it must be said that in politics he was as vulnerable to errors as any other and hence deserved deeper study. What little critical light fell on him was owing to international acclaim and attention he elicited. But Nehru, who had more personal and political skeletons to hide, however got away rather lightly. Till date, he has been spared the posthumous bad press; For a man who fathered free india’s political and economic destiny besides a dyanasty, an objective, threadbare analysis of his life, times and decisions would be hugely enlightening, but no such exhuming is possible. When union minister Shashi Tharoor sought to question Nehru’s foreign policy wisdom, he was hustled and shouted into rendering a denial and apology by the ‘more loyal than the king’ Congmen! In TN, the likes of Periyar, Anna, Kamaraj, MGR ect are all deemed too sacred for scrutiny. Such protective postures are actually a bigger insult to those dead men. Is their ‘greatness’ so brittle that it cannot withstand the persistent glare of the present?

Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein were open and shut cases, condemned to immortal damnation. The likes of Lenin had posthumous popularity runs in the Russian psyche and Marxists’ minds elsewhere, though the rest of the world was always suspicious. Many such Pol Pots have however prevailed in India in all pomp, post death. Is Jyoti Basu part of that pantheon? May be yes, may be no. But let’s learn to look. For many more are just a few feet from the grave … and probably, gun-salute-glory!

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Jawahar T R