A MAN OF SUBSTANCE, CHIEF MINISTER JYOTI BASU

By Manish Gupta

I met Shri Jyoti Basu, Chief Minister of West Bengal in November 1977 in Darjeeling. I was the Deputy Commissioner, Darjeeling. This was soon after the Left Front Government had come to power in West Bengal. He was as taciturn as ever but coping well with the crisp and cold air in his black ‘gala-bund’, probably quite bureaucratic-looking as they come. Jyoti Babu always wore the ‘dhoti’ but he did not think it was infra-dig to be in seemingly western clothes when he came to Darjeeling. His sartorial choice was quite in line, given the weather prevailing at the material time. All said and done it certainly helped towards cementing a better understanding with the hill people. In the years that were to follow, people found this quite extra-ordinary. Some of his colleagues stuck to the national attire notwithstanding the chilly winds in the hills. Eyebrows were raised, locally, I mean. But Jyoti Babu’s quizzical expressions in photographs of the times, did betray to a great extent, his exasperation at the lack of practicality of those, who could have taken a cue from him. Be that as it may some of those people hardly endeared themselves to the hill people. In a purer sense it was an alienation of sorts but the question remains - how can what you wear, have a direct bearing on any political outcome? Posterity can only judge.

Chief Minister, Jyoti Basu believed that identity and identification were important cogs in the intricate political issues unfolding in the hills. He recognised the fact that State power alone or state hegemony could not dictate the turn of events in the hills. His policy was to promote an open, free and frank dialogue with peoples’ representatives to forge policies to meet the aspirations of the hill people. Jyoti Babu’s adroit handling of the GNLF agitation in the mid-eighties is well known. At the time he was able to motivate several district level officers to give off their best, at considerable risk to their own lives. This mindset helped to keep the situation under control. Subsequent events bear testimony to Jyoti Babu’s policies which led to the formation of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council.

Modern academic research has debated the extent to which elected officials can control their bureaucratic agents. Some believe that because bureaucrats sometimes, have more information than elected officials, about what they are doing and what they should be doing. They feel that bureaucrats might have the ability to subtly modify and implement policies or regulations, in a manner, which may not be in the interest of the political executive. Jyoti Babu thought otherwise. He did not feel that in allowing the bureaucracy to function in a purposeful and classical manner, any part of the authority of the political executive would result in abdication, to appointed bureaucrats. Also, usually the transition from long years as a fiery opposition leader to the intricate and complicated world of public administration could seem to be a daunting task. Not so for Chief Minister, Jyoti Basu when he occupied the chair in 1977. He slid smoothly into the ‘system’. Jyoti Babu’s performance as the CM was always under constant watch from within his party and outside. He came out with flying colours.

Importantly, Jyoti Babu (as an administrator) led from the front. He did not adopt any ‘cloak and dagger’ methods to help in administering the mammoth and diverse bureaucratic setup in the state. He never ‘held a knife behind his back’. He was always transparent up-front and believed in himself. He believed in the Rule of Law and the Constitution. His interpretation and understanding of rules, procedures and protocols was mature and painless. He stuck to the basics and carried on from there. His leadership was accepted from the State Cabinet right down to the lowliest peon in the Block Office. A nod from him was adequate to send the right message down the line. There are however two issues regarding him that his detractors keep shoving up in the public domain, albeit a little slyly. One is that he did not know his mother tongue well and the other is that he did not care much about the written word. In my view this was a sort of malicious propaganda to reduce the stature of this colossus who strode the corridors of Writers Buildings. The funny thing about the bureaucracy is that all in it have a profound knowledge of what exactly goes on within the ‘system’, and who is capable of what, including their strengths and weaknesses. This is a reality which is perhaps mostly not known to the political executive and other interest groups.

A simple inside view indicates that Jyoti Babu could read documents written in Bengali with great facility. He was not required to write in Bengali as all files were in English. At all functions and forums related directly with the working of the government, he always spoke in Bengali. His style was facile and simple. No sanskrit. In fact Jyoti Babu was also instrumental in introducing the Bengali medium for the first time in all Cabinet papers, which stood side by side with English. He was very scrutinising where files and papers were concerned and went over them diligently, depending to a degree on the importance of the matters placed before him. He quite often took files home when they related to important matters of state. More often than not he came back with lots of queries, suggestions and corrections. This was eminently commendable considering his age and the many man-hours he had to invest, to achieve the high standards that he sought to set. The bureaucracy for its part stayed in line and made strenuous efforts to deliver. Those involved will stand witness.

“Question Day” for the Chief Minister in the State Assembly was a high point in the functioning of that august body. He was also the Home Minister. It was popularly known as “JB’s Day”. A lot of excitement was generated as questions related to the Home Department and mostly on Law and Order. The Assembly was very well attended on the day and the media overflowed. Visitors’ galleries were full. They would come to see how this famous legislator and leader of the Government would tackle the questions and the barbs thrown at him in the charged atmosphere of the historic hall.

All this Jyoti Babu took as a challenge and consequently proceeded to set up over the years, a system in the bureaucracy which could stand up and deliver. Usually there would be around twenty (20) to twenty five Questions filed for the day which would be taken up by the Speaker during Question Hour. Two days previous, Jyoti Babu would hold detailed discussions with his officers. He would suggest changes to the draft replies when he thought they were required. Sometimes he would direct collection of more information within a fixed time frame. This could be a daunting task at times, given the poor efficiencies of the communication system. He was quite into ‘full stops and commas’ and proper construction and realignment of words and sentences. On the next day he would make another check and would take all the files home ie., a day previous to Question Day. He would study the papers at his house late into the night. This was evidenced by the calls he would sometimes make to the residences of the concerned officers quite late at night! The next day he would move to the Assembly a full hour in advance to enable him to go over those issues which were likely to hold center-stage during Question Hour. It is needless to mention that the concerned officers were all on their toes during this process. He was a hard task-master but his own application and diligence never took a back seat.

His performance on the floor of the Assembly was to say the least proverbial. He was calm and collected during the din that would invariably ensue when Question Hour commenced. The Opposition Members would invariably seek to embarrass Jyoti Babu with their jibes and ‘supplementaries’. Jyoti Babu was always unfazed and stood his ground. He never looked back at the Officers Gallery for back-up and quite competently held his own. His replies in Bengali were crisp and clear backed up by his depth of knowledge and the due diligence of the written word. This impressed many.

Jyoti Babu kept his Party outside the Government in the sense that the hierarchy in the establishment was maintained at most times without let or hindrance. There was no direct intervention by the Party in power. He did not frown upon the ‘Rule of Law” when it was implemented irrespective of party affiliations, even against functionaries of his Party. He did not follow any confrontationist policies with the High Court or the office of the Governor. At the same time he was very clear about the role to be played by the Executive in governance. He did not brook any interference but maintained a level-headed approach at all times in matters of state. In the late nineties a new Governor had taken up office. As is customary a draft of the Governor’s Address for the Budget Session was sent to him for formal approval. After having read it over for several days he evinced interest in changing some portions of the address. Little did he know, that Jyoti Babu had taken the original draft home and had corrected and re-written several large portions of it in his own hand, before sending it to the Governor. Jyoti Babu did not take kindly to this, as according to form, the Governor had no option but to affix his approval, in accordance with Constitutional provisions and conventions. His Excellency was not to be dissuaded. Jyoti Babu stood firm as he felt that any changes did not fall within the ambit of the Governors powers. However in the end Jyoti Babu agreed to admit some minor suggestions, as an indulgent father would do to humour a son. He was not rigid and inflexible beyond a certain point. That was a great quality.

As Chief Minister, Jyoti Babu at the time of General Elections or Elections to the State Assembly, did not interfere in any way with the functioning of the CEO. No Chief Electoral Officer even when that office was not exclusive of the State setup, ever felt cramped for space. This is a well known and accepted fact. During the Elections held in 1989, Jyoti Babu declined to intervene on behalf of some trouble makers that were brought to book in Kolkata, although they owed allegiance to his Party. This did not make some people happy. In fact he made it very clear there that there was no cause to overreact in any situation and law must take precedence. This attitude of the Chief Minister gave a lot of confidence to the CEO’s office. The then Chief Election Commissioner in Delhi lauded the conduct of elections in the State, in a letter written to the Chief Minister. This is on record. Following the infamous Bowbazar Bomb Blast on March 17, 1993, the Print Media had gone into overdrive. Around eighty people were killed and two apartment blocks were razed o the ground. Allegations and counter allegations were being leveled in the Press, much to the chagrin of the State Government. Names of several police officers were being mentioned. It was alleged that there names had cropped up in some diaries and documents belonging to the main accused, recovered from the blast site. Official sources were being quoted. There was an insidious move to tarnish the name of the Government, and that of the officers whose names were being bandied about, in Press reports. Mischief was afoot. This is when Jyoti Babu stepped into the fray. He issued stern orders on the Home Department to get to the bottom of the mess, no matter how unpalatable the actual information could turn out to be. He was unfazed by the adverse publicity and allotted a time frame of forty eight hours to the department to ascertain the facts. His attitude helped to clear the air. The bureaucracy could act without fear or favour. It was established that no diaries or documents as quoted in the Press had actually been discovered at the blast site. The clamour died down.

Jyoti Babu did not believe that religion, religious practices or rituals made sense. He steered clear of them. Once in the late-eighties in the morning of a comparatively lighter day in the office, he wanted to talk to the DIG Traffic as he had been receiving several complaints from road-users. It was around 11am. He was told that the DIG sahib was doing Puja and was unavailable at the precise moment. It was quite an embarrassing but comical situation. Jyoti Babu enquired with a smile whether there were any real benefits in placing ‘Puja’, on a higher pedestal, than one’s commitment to the job. The DIG appeared before the CM later in the day with his shoulders drooping and looking much chastised. Many wondered why he hadn’t lost his job, but Jyoti Babu was not vindictive. He knew the officer had learnt a lesson.

Religion apart, Jyoti Babu was politically opposed to the capitalism of the West. This did not reflect on his compassion for those in danger irrespective of which political doctrine they subscribed to. For the two hundred beleaguered American passengers of Thai Airways flight hijacked to Kolkata Airport in 1990, he pulled out all the stops. It was 4pm IST. The hijackers threatened to blow up the aircraft along with the passengers unless all political prisoners in Myanmar were released by the Military Junta – a tough demand to meet! To compound matters, communication with the hijackers through the airport control tower was impossibly impeded because the two hijackers had little English! The situation was tense as so many lives were at stake. In a couple of hours darkness descended. This further complicated the situation. Something had to be done urgently! The Government of India sent a Special Commando Squad to take over the management of the ‘crisis’ which was precipitated by the hijack. They arrived by a special plane at 7pm. Their brief was ‘direct action’- lives or ‘no lives’. Jyoti Babu stood his ground and refused to give quarter. He wanted the situation to be dealt with in a more circumspect manner. According to the conventions in force the State Government should be in charge. Jyoti Babu felt that no matter what the circumstances or the outcome, the State could not absolve itself of the responsibility of meeting the situation head on. Lives had to be saved. Senior state officials deployed at the airport had no experience in handling hijacks, and had to play it by ear. It would seem that there was considerable risk but the orders were clear. The constituted state-level committee would have to take charge. This was done and state police were deployed. All the two hundred odd American passengers were ultimately released after protracted negotiations with the hijackers. The hijackers were arrested. The management of Thai Airways later sent a letter expressing their gratitude to the State Government.

Jyoti Babu as the Head of the Government gave the distinct impression that he was not in favour of giving credence to wild rumours targeting individual functionaries in the Government, especially if they were of a personal nature. He hated ‘snooping’ especially by seniors on juniors. He took unkindly to rumor- mongers. Even otherwise he was unhappy if anybody talked behind another’s back. In fact he had the disconcerting habit of sometimes summoning the concerned individuals together, to his office. In a sense this perhaps did not help matters. Some people in the establishment felt that at times, because of this, he could not be made privy to important information. It is believed that this was well known and some took advantage. On the other hand it helped to separate the chaff from the grain. He was a transparent and simple man. To the bureaucracy, Jyoti Babu as Chief Minister was a man who exhibited several interesting facets to his character as an administrator. He had the right mixture of intelligence, imagination, communication skills, humour, adapatability, patience, aggressiveness and discipline. The Tin Bigha problem was a case in point. He was requested by the Government of India to try and solve this ticklish problem with Bangladesh. He took it up in right earnest and decided to visit the Bangladesh border in North Bengal near Tin Bigha, Having had advance information of his visit, a large group of people had collected at the place where an access zone connecting some enclaves of Bangladesh was to be located. This came to be known as the Tin Bigha Corridor.

A clear sky and a blazing sun greeted the Chief Minister when he arrived on the scene at mid-day. The brightness of the sun was blinding. Also in evidence was the very large and noisy group of local villagers, held back at a distance of fifty yards by a flimsy rope. On espying the CM’s and his entourage, the mob became noisy and restless. They shouted slogans condemning the Government. Within minutes they started to test the patience of the small police force, posted at the spot. Jyoti Babu was told that these people were illegally protesting the setting up of the ‘corridor’. He was also told that these protests need not be taken seriously. In the meantime the leaderless crowd became more unruly. Some started throwing stones. Things were getting ugly. Jyoti Babu was not greatly impressed with the facts and the suggestions placed before him. Suddenly to everybody’s surprise he detached himself from his entourage with great alacrity, and rapidly marched down towards the mob, in his inimitable style! Officers present tried to intercede with him. He was not to be dissuaded. He insisted that one must always take serious note of voices raised in protest to come to grips with the issues involved. As he approached them the din became louder. Harried police and civil officials were at their wits end! They needed to devise some means to ensure that the CM was not injured in any melee which was likely to ensue, once he stood face to face with the mob.

Things happened in quick succession and within seconds the Chief Minister arrived within hand-shaking distance of the mob without any protection. Jyoti Babu conversed in loud tones with those in the front ranks of the crowd, even while stones were flying through the air! He came through unscathed but it was an object lesson in raw courage, endurance and leadership for all present. Overhead the hot sun blazed on. The crowd fell silent, ‘astounded’ perhaps, by the Chief Minister’s actions? It transpired that the local inhabitants on the Indian side, were protesting the setting up of the ‘corridor’ as it would block normal access which could hamper agricultural operations. This misconception was cleared subsequently.

The Babri Masjid demolition set off a chain of events throughout the country on December 6, 1992. The Government was taken by surprise - yet another failure of the ‘intelligence agencies’. They were never taken to task. In Kolkata, by midnight a full scale conflagration was starting to develop. Rumours abounded. The situation was grim. The Army was required to be called in for which a protracted written procedure was required to be followed, entailing approval from the Ministry of Defence. Jyoti Babu had always kept up a durable and warm relationship with the Eastern Army Command. He was highly regarded by the Army top brass. He had earned their ungrudging respect. This stood the Government in good stead in the emergency that arose, during the next two days and nights. Formalities were dispensed with and the Indian Army agreed to deploy troops at very short notice. Kolkata Police played an active role in bringing peace to potentially difficult areas. Regretfully the apathy of one or two senior officers came to light and serious differences surfaced in the hierarchy. Jyoti Babu did not allow this to spill out in the open as restoration of law and order was his priority. Route marches by the Army under the active guidance of the State Police helped to prevent the disturbances spinning out of control. Many lives were saved.

On a winter’s day in January, 1993 around 3pm, a group led by Sm Mamata Banerjee set up a flash sit-in demonstration before the entrance to the Chief Minister’s office at Writers Buildings. Jyoti Babu had gone out during the lunch-break. A sizeable crowd of curious onlookers gathered at the place. As time passed, the crowd grew larger and decibel levels were on the increase. There was considerable chaos, as the situation went from bad to worse. The administration taken by surprise, went into a huddle to find ways and means to ease the situation. The crisis deepened when information came in at 3.45pm that Jyoti Babu was on his way back. To buy time, his convoy was hurriedly advised on the police wireless to divert to the CM’s old Raj Bhavan quarters, till the situation was brought under control. When Jyoti Babu came to know about the ‘goings on’ he refused to divert and peremptorily declined to proceed anywhere, but to his office at Writers Buildings. He came back to his office and entered at 4pm, his usual time. He later had this to say – “If I am the Chief Minister of the State then where else, did you all think, that I should be going, no matter what the circumstances!” Jyoti Babu’s actions underlined his clear thinking and resolve. He was not to be intimidated. Jyoti Babu was exceedingly unhappy about the large scale ‘security cover’ which was provided to him. He was particularly critical of the large number of vehicles in his convoy. He felt that the police were going overboard especially when he was upgraded to the Z+ security category. At the same time he would comment that if they felt that this had to be done, then so be it. According to him, they did what they had to do. That was a little tongue in the cheek, perhaps! He was known to have commented that if anybody really wanted to assassinate him, then could the administration effectively stop that from happening? This fatalism underlined his courage and simplicity.

Jyoti Babu was no imperator who issued edicts down the line nor did he try to prehend the laurels of other stalwarts of his Party who played important roles in the ‘Land Reforms’ saga or in the ‘Devolution of Power’ to local bodies and Panchayati Raj institutions. He attributed all these successes to the policies and programmes of the Left Front Government. He did not claim any credits for himself either in any public or private forum. This fact is well known. He can however be credited to a great extent for changing the priorities of the Government in the early nineties. He had then announced the Industrial Policy Resolution in 1994 at a conclave of industrialists at Raichak in Haldia. He set up 6 (six) high powered committees to suggest measures to be taken for development of such diverse subjects as physical infrastructure, horticulture and food processing, information technology, roads, agriculture etc,. He recognized the need for the State Government to actively participate in the development of Information Technology in the state and formally announced the Government’s IT Policy in 1999. Printed copies were widely distributed. This set the tune for a new era of development and more employment opportunities.

As an administrator Jyoti Babu always kept an open mind and treated members of all constituted services and all government staff and officers with fairness. He was never biased. His views and decisions were never clouded by extraneous factors. He was methodical, firm and considerate. He did not play favourites. He appreciated good work and gave credit. He emanated confidence and motivated his subordinates to face tough challenges. Jyoti Babu did not give unusual importance to any bureaucrat and always kept them in check.

Jyoti Babu relinquished office at the turn of the century. Although he was much senior in age than those serving in the bureaucracy, he was never hesitant in treating all grades of civil servants with respect and dignity. He did not dabble in petty matters or trivial issues. He always strove to keep the government machinery in good nick through a deft combination of communication skills, prompt decision-making and discipline. In more ways than one he earned the ungrudging admiration and respect of those who served with him.

Jyoti Babu was an icon of his times. He was a man of substance.

February 11, 2010
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