Thursday, January 21, 2010


A speech or a writing in praise of the dead is very common in India, may be world over, not to forget the case of the king of pop, Michael Jackson.

Starting from home where according to Hindu rituals, a laudatory speech is read out by a priest on the 10th day after demise of a person, to the state or country in which we live, bouts of emotions are displayed on event of demise of a political leader, an actor or any person of considerable social prominence.

The person’s age or the cause of death being natural does not mitigate this display of  emotions. We all know how Bangalore came to a standstill for two days with widespread cases of looting and arson when actor Rajkumar died of ill health. This recurred with actor Vishnuvaradhan’s death when South Bangalore faced brief and sporadic violence by mobs.

Even borders of nations, the activities in which the person is actually engaged when alive does not deter one from singing poems of praise in the event of death, remember how Tamil Nadu CM Karunanidhi lauded the slain LTTE political leader SP Tamilselvan through carefully crafted poems that invited ire from the Indian government. May be the CM was clouded by personal grief, he forgot the quantum of terror unleashed by LTTE for decades in Sri Lanka.

Emotional speeches, visits of prominent leaders from across the border, impeccable state honor have all come to Jyoti Basu, the 95 year old CPM veteran, who succumbed to old age and deteriorating health, to a leader par excellence who managed to reign over West Bengal for 23 years, to a true colossus/legend/patriarch and many more names that the press has bestowed upon him posthumously.

However, an astoundingly different and a crisply true notion is expressed by the article below, published on Times of India, 20th Jan 2010 named “A place time forgot”, written by Ashok Malik

A Place Time Forgot

Only a hard heart would not have been moved by the idea of a proud, imperious man on a hospital bed, valiantly fighting all that nature threw at him. Jyoti Basu was chief minister of West Bengal for 23 years. In 1996, he almost made it to 7 Racecourse Road. In the eyes of his devotees, he remains the finest prime minister India never had.
In the past few weeks, these devotees were very visible. Some wrote maudlin articles. Others, such as H D Deve Gowda - who got the job Basu's party forced him to turn down in 1996 - made the pilgrimage to Kolkata. Ironically, the most fervent praise came from outsiders. Those who experienced Basu's Bengal, as opposed to those who idealised it from afar, would prefer a more cold-blooded assessment.
Many of these people don't live in Kolkata, or West Bengal, anymore. A contraction of opportunities, educational and economic, and a closing of the Bengali mind have long forced them to relocate. From Bangalore to Boston, about every buzzing city has its share of refugees from Bengal. Perhaps posterity will call them "Basu's children", a once-great state's lost generation(s).
West Bengal is not a location of contemporary relevance; it is the place time forgot. Kolkata is a museum piece; somebody cruel once called it "the world's largest old people's home". You go there if you're a heritage tourist, a nostalgia junkie or have a particularly beloved patriarch to visit one final time. As Basu's health deteriorated, this harsh verity made itself apparent. In his twilight hours, he began to resemble his terrifying legacy.
Sympathetic fellow travellers tend to dismiss criticism of Basu as limited to a small Kolkata elite he disempowered. He is worshipped by millions in Bengal's rural heartland, they argue. How true is this?
Certainly, the worst of the CPM's 'cadre-cracy' was reserved for the city. In the 1970s and 1980s, the world gradually began to turn. The Asian tigers began to embrace technology and trade and move out of misery. They gave a slumbering continent a new economic model. This was precisely the time Basu chose to finally bury the Bengal renaissance. Business was hounded out, computers were resisted. English was abolished in government primary schools, depriving young Bengalis of a massive comparative advantage.
What was the result? As an early industrial state, West Bengal should have led the march into post-industrialisation. With its educational institutions and its middle class, it should have been a services sector natural. The first IT companies and the IT-enabled services boom should have started in Kolkata. Basu didn't allow this. History will never forgive him.
The point is Basu should have known better. Even before he became chief minister in 1977, he was a well-travelled man. He knew the global currents. He understood the implications of driving out technology and English, all in the name of anti-elitism. In contrast, his successor had a provincial background. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee had to learn a lot of lessons the hard way, lessons that came easily to Basu. Yet, to be fair to Bhattacharjee, he tried. Basu didn't bother.
How successful was Basu in village Bengal? The state has 18 districts; 14 of these are among India's 100 poorest. Inequality - the gap between supposedly pampered Kolkata and the hungry hinterland - was the Left's war cry. As economists Bibek Debroy and Laveesh Bhandari emphasised in their paper 'A Story of Falling Behind'(2009), "Uttar Dinajpur, which is West Bengal's poorest district, has a per capita SDP that is only 33.6 per cent that of Kolkata [the richest district]. For all its talk about equity and removal of inequalities, the West Bengal government hasn't been able to improve the lot of the people in the worst-off and backward districts."
Basu's biggest failing was lack of conviction. He mocked those he opposed as well as those he led. In the late 1960s, the CPM entered government in alliance with Congress rebels. Basu was deputy chief minister and in-house saboteur. Almost every day, his party would lampoon the governor, Dharma Vira, as a reactionary agent of Delhi. Almost every evening, after the slogans were done, Basu would reportedly turn up at Raj Bhavan for a drink with Dharma Vira and their common friend Ranjit Gupta, former chief secretary and the brother of CPI leader Indrajit Gupta. Was this a careful separation of the personal from the political - or was it plain hypocrisy? How would you describe Basu's visits every summer to London, ostensibly to "seek investment", visits so important that he often missed August 15 in India?
The most illuminating story comes from the day of the funeral of Pramod Dasgupta, CPM strongman, in 1982. According to an eyewitness account, immediately afterwards a tired Basu went to a certain relative's house and, there, he sat down with a book: George Mikes' How to be an Alien. Considering how he looked at Bengal, and what he had reduced it to, that's rather telling.

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