After Reading "যতদূর মনে পড়ে"

I took this book with me on my trip to Denver as a light reading. I knew about Jyoti Basu and the dominance of his party in West Bengal politics from reading the newspaper but never had any in-depth understanding of how that came to reality. This is the book where Jyoti Basu tells the story of how Communist Party of India came into being and how it shaped Indian politics. Like most autobiography, it is lopsided and goes at length to justify his views and actions. Nevertheless, I got a glimpse into the history of West Bengal politics and Indian central government politics.

Since 1947, both Pakistan and later Bangladesh had a significant presence of authoritarian military governments while India never had any military coup. This led me to a belief that things were mostly steady and serene in India, which turns out incorrect. Even if I consider Mr. Basu's description one-sided, political oppression did not evaporate as soon as the British left. Congress was in power and it used all the available apparatus to marginalize other parties and activists, just like the way the Brits did it to them. It was remarkable to see how CPI was slowly building its base, one election at a time, despite the active and often brutal deterrence from Congress. It was also disappointing to see how West Bengal, and India at large, lost the opportunity to enable harmonious co-existence of various political parties under a true democracy. Even though there were no military coups, the central government, which was ruled by Congress most of the time, often used its constitutional authority to grab power whenever there was a non-Congress party in a state government. I found this ironic since India is often branded as world's largest democracy.

Another historically significant event the book describes is the rise of Hindu nationalism and BJP. What started as a political stunt show in a state later engulfed entire India. To some extent, I think Congress's attitude towards Hindu nationalism as "not my problem" enabled BJP to rise to power. Time and time again, we see that political leaders use religion as the easiest route to make a mob enraged and reap the benefits of chaos. This might be a far-fetched prediction, but current Bangladesh government's attitude towards Hefajate Islam is similar to what Congress had for Hindu Mahashava and in a few years Hefajate Islam may become something similar to BJP in Bangladesh.

One feature of Indian democracy is the ability to "cross-floor", i.e. vote against your own party. Since the death of Rajiv Gandhi, as the nationwide support for Congress diminished, no one party had the absolute majority to form a central government. So it came down to forming coalition between parties (often of very different political philosophies) to get to power. This, with the addition to floor-crossing ability made the central government very unstable. Often times, there were trading of favors and supports between factions of parties to keep the government in power or remove it from power. I think this inherent instability made the constituents frustrated as it is not their votes rather the trading between the parties decided who will be in power.

Mr. Basu led the Left Front government for five terms in a row. He boasts about the successes during his tenure in the book while avoiding taking the ownership of any failures. Most of the failures of the state government were blamed as the act of sabotages from the central government. In fact, through-out the book, there is a reluctance to accept ownership for any kind of failure, both at the personal level and at the party level.

As I was reading today about the current political situation in West Bengal, I could not stop myself from laughing. The once-mighty Left Front's vote share dwindled to 6% and they hardly won anything in the last election. After the passing of all the great comrades, I think they lost their place in people's mind. Just the same way, the dominance of Congress in West Bengal politics once vanished, the Left Front is facing the same reality. Perhaps, it is not ironic anymore that both these rival parties are now forming alliance against BJP and TMC, just to survive. Politics is really weird.

The book is a description of Mr. Basu's political life and he touches very little on his personal life. Overall, it was an enjoyable read. You just need to take everything he says with a little grain of salt.

Published at: 12/15/2020