Kolkata: Jyoti once told me he wanted to meet Indira Gandhi. It was 1971—she was then the prime minister and I was a minister in the Union government.
Jyoti was then the leader of the opposition in West Bengal and though he belonged to a rival party, he was a very dear friend whom I had known since 1947. So, even at the height of political rivalry between us, I couldn’t say no to him. I called him over for dinner at my house in Delhi, and from there we went to meet Indira. I drove him to her house in my Standard Herald car, and met her together.
On our return, we lost our way. Neither Jyoti nor I knew Delhi that well. We kept going round and round for a long time, but couldn’t find our way. Finally, I saw a police station and pulled up in front of it. I told Jyoti I would go inside and ask the police for help. “You are an idiot,” he shouted immediately. “If you ask the police for help, the whole world would know you and I were driving around in Delhi (together),” he said.
Such was his presence of mind.
I met Jyoti first in 1947 after I became a barrister and started practising law in Kolkata. Though he had joined politics almost immediately after returning from the UK in 1940, Jyoti, too, had practised law in Kolkata for a couple of months.
Close friends: A 1993 photo of Siddhartha Shankar Ray (left) along with Jyoti Basu in Kolkata. Mona Chowdhury
He had become a barrister in 1940—six years before I did. Both of us went to St Xavier’s before going to the UK to read law.
As politicians, we had a lot of differences, but we were such close friends that even on the floor of the assembly, we always addressed each other by first names—in fact, he would call me by my nickname, Manu.
Jyoti became a political hero much before he became the chief minister in 1977. This I realized soon after I had won my first election as an independent candidate in 1958—I had resigned from the Congress the year before. He and I had gone to Chandernagore to address a public meeting together. When we were leaving, a group of very beautiful girls approached us for autographs. I readily obliged, but I wasn’t that important. Jyoti being more popular than me, they were more interested in getting him to write something for them. They persuaded Jyoti a lot, but he stubbornly refused.
I asked him on our way back to Kolkata why he had refused to write something for them. He said, “How could I? I can’t write Bengali.” He hadn’t read Bengali in school because in those days, it wasn’t taught at St Xavier’s.
It isn’t, however, surprising at all that someone who couldn’t write Bengali ruled West Bengal for 23 years. He was India’s longest serving chief minister because he was honest to the core—not for once did he change his stance on any issue—and had a tremendous amount of control over his party.
While we always remained very good friends, he and I have had a lot of differences. In 1962, he and I fell out for the first time on the Chinese invasion. In a heated debate in the legislative assembly, I told him I would stop calling him the leader of the opposition. “I have no private quarrel with the opposition, but I quarrel with them today on the ground that I am an Indian,” I had said in my speech.
When eventually the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or the CPM, came to power in 1977 led by Jyoti, they had already created a lot of problems for themselves. The flight of industries from the state started in the early 1960s, when Jyoti, despite his control over the party—the undivided Communist Party of India and later the CPM—chose not to oppose militancy by trade unions.
In those days, all foreign airlines had offices in Kolkata—they had thought the city was to become the main hub in South Asia. But it didn’t. People started moving manufacturing units from Kolkata because the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (Citu) made life miserable for businessmen.
The CPM forgot that industry was just as important as agriculture. Now Mamata Banerjee, the state’s main opposition leader, is saying she will strike a balance between the two, but I don’t know what she will achieve in the end.
Not just over China, Jyoti and I had a lot of differences on many other issues such as education—the CPM built a complete stranglehold on education in West Bengal by getting its people to control all key positions. Such control by politicians or bureaucrats is unthinkable at the world’s leading universities such as Oxford, Cambridge or Harvard.
But despite differences, Jyoti and I continued to be very good friends. He was very close to my wife, too. I last met him in the US, when I was India’s ambassador. We got industrialists and non-resident Indians based in the US to commit investments worth $1.3 billion (Rs5,941 crore today) in West Bengal, and Jyoti had gone there to oversee the signing of agreements, but unfortunately, very little materialized.
As a chief minister, Bidhan Chandra Roy, who built West Bengal almost from scratch after independence, was far ahead of Jyoti, but besides him, no one comes even remotely close. I will remember Jyoti as a great friend, a good human being and an impeccably honest man.
The author was West Bengal’s chief minister from 1972-77, governor of Punjab from 1986-89 and India’s ambassador to the US from 1992-96.