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Conversations: 'The Rest of the Country Can Learn From Us'
Web-only interview with retired West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu

November 7, 2000
Web posted at 4:30 p.m. Hong Kong time, 4:30 a.m. EDT

'He Made Communism Look Respectable'
A profile of the Indian political legend Jyoti Basu

One of India's political legends, Jyoti Basu, the communist Chief Minister of West Bengal state, formally resigned on Nov. 6 after a career spanning 24 years. Often described as a politician more influenced by Fabian Socialism than communist orthodoxy, Basu wants to be remembered for his land-reform policies and his efforts to eradicate rural poverty. In a meeting with TIME Calcutta contributor Subir Bhaumik, Basu also discusses setbacks during his career and says communism and mass struggle will always be a part of India. Edited excerpts:

Web-only interviews with South Asia's opinion makers

Visit the Conversations Archive in TIME Asia's Web Features for more interviews with South Asia's opinion makers

TIME: What was your government's single biggest success?
Land reforms, removal of rural poverty, and decentralization of governance. We have empowered more than a million poor sharecroppers. That's more than any other state in India. These poor people now have dignity. And they have worked hard and produced more. Bengal's agrarian landscape has been transformed. Our potato production has gone up seven times in 15 years -- a rate of growth that would be great even by the standards of Punjab and Haryana [India's most agriculturally prosperous states].

TIME: But you failed to transform the industrial scene?
Agriculture is a state-controlled matter. Heavy industry is different. There was a clear attempt by bureaucrats in New Delhi to discourage industrial investments in Bengal. But we undertook a major initiative to secure investments. And we have been successful. Industrialists are investing in Bengal, particularly in the IT field. We will transform the industrial landscape of Bengal, and we will soon catch up with the leaders.

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TIME: Wasn't militant trade unionism and political instability in the late 1960s and the early '70s primarily responsible for Bengal's industrial decline, for the flight of capital?
That's not the case anymore. Trade unions are becoming more responsible. Rights also involve responsibilities.

TIME: But you still have a problem with trade unions, especially in cases involving privatization, don't you?
Yes, sometimes, they have not been realistic. Much as we expect management to be responsible, it must also be understood that industrialists are not expected to run charities. But I do not support random privatization. Those government industries that are doing well, which are in key sectors, must be retained. There's no reason for handing them over to dubious private operators.

TIME: There is a growing demand for Delhi to impose President's [direct] rule in West Bengal. Your political opponents allege that law and order is breaking down in parts of the state.
The opposition, particularly the Trinamul Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), are trying to oust us from power by force and manipulation. Their supporters started violence on a large scale by mobilizing disaffected landowners. Now they blame us for the worsening of law and order. They want to come to power by the back door. That will not happen. The people of West Bengal gave a fitting reply to the Congress for its excesses in the 1970s. They will not forgive any unconstitutional action now. Mamata Banerji [India's Railway Minister and leader of the Trinamul Congress] is now alleging we started the recent floods in Bengal. Has she lost her mind?

TIME: Your government appeared unprepared for the floods, and critics say the decision to release water from dams made the situation worse.
For a week the rains were really heavy. There was too much pressure on the dams and to prevent them from bursting we had to release water in large quantities. That did create problems. But we had no option. Bursting dams would have been worse.

TIME: Do you regret not becoming Prime Minister?
Not at all. The [Communist Party's] Central Committee decided in 1996 that we should join the government. The party majority felt otherwise. I felt that was a wrong decision. I said so, but I accepted the decision of the majority. Now the majority feels otherwise. We have inner-party democracy in the Communist Party of India (Marxist). So it is ultimately up to the party. Individuals are not important.

TIME: What advice have you given your successor Buddhadev Bhattacharya?
I have told him to give top priority to maintaining the stability of the [ruling] Left Front. These are bad times for the Left and its members will have to stick together. A communal force, fully fascist and determined to destroy our secular polity, is in power in Delhi. In the interest of the country, the Left should maintain its unity and keep up its challenge to the communal forces.

TIME: Do you perceive a threat to Left unity?
Not really. The Left Front in Bengal will not break up. Our party is the biggest coalition success in Indian politics. More Left parties, secular parties, should join the Front. A one-party system is a thing of the past in India. Coalition management is the need of the hour; the rest of the country can learn from us. We tried very hard to keep the unity of the National Front intact in Delhi, but we failed. And that paved the way to power for the fascists, the communal BJP. And look at what that has meant for minority groups. Look at the way churches have been attacked. As a communist, I don't go and pray, but I believe if a person can pray in a temple, others have an equal right to pray in a mosque or a church.

TIME: Is there a future for communism in India and elsewhere?
Communism has suffered major setbacks with the breakup of the Soviet Union. In the Soviet Union, it was primarily a failure of the federal arrangement in place. That's what we fear in India. This country's unity, threatened by hostile forces, will be jeopardized unless the majesty of federalism is upheld and states are given more powers. In China, communism has survived, but they have made adjustments as well. You cannot rule out a future for a system just because it has suffered some setbacks. The capitalist system also suffers setbacks, through economic crises. That's when people begin to question the unfettered supremacy of the free market.

TIME: Will communism live on through violent revolution or the ballot box?
It depends on the ruling classes. If they allow reasonable democracy, communists can come to power through the ballot box. That's the way it should be. But if the ruling classes are oppressive, communists will have to take up arms. The interest of the people, poor people, will have to be defended, preferably through mass struggles, but if necessary, through armed struggle.

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