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How does someone of my generation or age judge a public figure like Jyoti Basu? I grew up in a Bengal that was dominated by the later half of his ‘reign’ (1987-2000), by which time the early fruits of the communist movement in the state, like land reforms, Panchayati Raj and social uplifting of farmers in the villages had already begun to ring hollow, particularly in the urban areas, where a comprehensive apathy towards industry and neglect of urban development had caused a certain degree of disillusionment with the Communist Party (CPI-M) amongst the educated classes. This was at least so in my hometown of Durgapur, a city founded by a visionary Congressman and a predecessor of Basu, and which saw many of its fine industries being wasted by unhealthy trade-unionism. As a school student, I recall how strikes were a fairly common affair (which is so even today), and which meant that our parents, or those who were employed in the Steel Plant, would have to be in their offices by the midnight preceding the day of bandh, lest they be denied entry by the striking workers. On every such occasion, one could hear the adults cursing either Jyoti Basu or his party, the CPI(M), for its hijacking of industrial development in the state.

Most of these curses were arguably well deserved. At the time, however, I did not understand much, and would wonder why such a seemingly charming and innocent person should be at the receiving end. But later, and now, I have witnessed at first hand some of the scourges of the Jyoti Basu era. Universities continue to be deeply infested with party sympathizers, if not members, the culture of bandhs has transcended party lines and become an accepted means of protest, and the once great city of Calcutta is now a massive and putrefying urban slum. I can also vouch for cadre hooliganism from experience. Notwithstanding all this, Jyoti Basu remained defiantly popular, and emerged victorious election after election, his strength being the unshakeable rural vote-bank. It was only after he relinquished office in 2000 that the fortunes of the CPI(M) began to decline, and the final chapters in this story remain to be written.

There have been many effusive comments and fond recollections on TV by political rivals about Jyoti Basu, now that he has passed away. But to judge objectively, and not charitably, one must take into account a host of issues and weigh them on a fine balance. Each and every action and inaction of his must be evaluated against its consequences, and in this evaluation, the skewed development of one sector at the cost of gross neglect of another must earn heavy penalties. In which direction the scales will ultimately tip is something that I can not decide, if only for want of knowledge or objectivity. Let wiser minds than I decide, or let it be left to history.

What can be said without loss of objectivity, however, is that Mr Basu was the undisputed representative of a certain age and a certain ideology in 20th century India. He was one of the last remaining products of the independence movement, and belonged to that age in Indian politics where achievement came through sacrifice and not by birth, and the only agenda necessary or permissible to become a politician was a vision for a greater India. That age is regrettably in the past, and this is the age of dynasties and parivaars, and the narrower your political agenda, the better your chances of winning a seat. The ideology was Communism and Marxism. Basu was one of the very few leaders in the world who got to implement it through a democratic process and in a parliamentary system. While you could easily say what Jyoti Basu stood for, it is very difficult to decide the leanings of many of our present-day politicians. The relevance of his philosophy in the current day is the matter of a different debate, but at any rate, it was a philosophy which attracted the most passionate of adherents in Bengal once upon a time, most of them young and educated people. Together with its many offshoots, some of them rather extreme, Communism brought youngsters and college-goers into politics, though some say at the cost of politicizing them at too young an age.

Today very few youngsters, if any, are mourning his death. The newly enfranchised among them might even have been responsible for his party’s routing in the latest elections. I went out for a movie today, only to find the cinema closed. But I also found many others like me outside the theatre equally dismayed at the closure, and some were thinking of checking out the nearest multiplex. Perhaps the owner of the cinema is a genuine old-timer, or perhaps he is foregoing his day’s profits out of ‘deference’ to the local CPI(M) boss. One can not tell, and it is just as well not to linger any further on Jyoti Basu’s legacy. As a Communist, he would not approve of the ‘cult of the individual’ himself. But if I have to retain a single image of the man who bestrode Bengal politics and Indian communism like a Colossus for decades, it would be one taken from the BBC’s online obituary:

“As a young student of a Catholic school during the British colonial days, Mr Basu led his friends on a daytime raid of the posh, whites-only Calcutta Club. Fully-clothed, they splashed merrily in the swimming pool until they were fished out and arrested.”

I would choose this for it represents what Basu started off with and was capable of, and not what he failed to accomplish nevertheless.

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Tiananmen Square on Google.com
Tiananmen Square on Google.cn

“Letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend is the policy for promoting the progress of the arts and the sciences and a flourishing socialist culture in our land.” – Mao Zedong (1966)

I came across these seemingly unbelievable words, while running a search on Google with the string “Chairman Mao on Liberty”. Needless to say, the first couple of pages did not yield anything relevant, and, in a rare event for a Google search, I had to navigate to the third or fourth page, with modified search parameters, to actually find this. This is not surprising, as Mao is not expected to have said much about liberty, unless of course in an antagonistic sense. The point, however, is that while I could at least find it, someone running the same search on Google.cn would have exhausted himself and the search engine trying to find it. Beijing must have censored it, assuming it to have been uttered by the Chairman in a moment of indiscretion! (These words were actually the banner of the short-lived ‘Hundred Flowers Campaign’ initiated, and thereafter suppressed by Mao in a rare move to project a positive image to the West.)

Much is being made of Google’s threat to shut shop in China if censorship continues, and recently, Yahoo has joined the moral bandwagon and expressed sympathy with Google, which is sitting currently on a moral high horse of sorts. Some say that this is pure posturing, and that Google is seeking an honourable exit strategy from a loss-making market. Where, after all, was Google’s conscience when it made the deal with the devil in the first place? But whatever be the compulsions behind Google’s intended exit (note that Google.cn is still online) from the Chinese market, it brings to fore the issue of information censorship in the present age.

Suppression of free thought and restriction of access to information have been the hallmarks of communist China, and that is one of the few remaining characteristics of communism that the country has retained. In many other respects, particularly economy, trade and business organisation, the Chinese have been quick to adopt liberal models and are also reaping the benefits of the same. The average Chinese is richer and perhaps lives more luxuriously than the average Indian whose country is politically more liberal. Does this justify, however, the Chinese government’s policy of hiding its skeletons by means of state control? Is the government so naïve as to believe that it can prevent popular dissent by cutting out the grisly images of Tiananmen from the web pages of its burgeoning millions, many of them curious and inquisitive youngsters?

The current political system in China is the result of a popular uprising which took place before internet was even invented. There was no Google or Baidu to alert the masses to the injustices of those who were then in power. If there is to be another revolution in China, it will come riding on the relentless tides of history, like it has always happened before, and a search engine or two in such a situation will hardly be of much significance. Until then, the People’s Republic should behave like one and allow a ‘hundred schools of thought to contend”, as its founder may have inadvertently let slip in a moment of rare sapience.

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