It is not without irony that when communist icon and avowed atheist Jyoti Basu died of multi-organ failure on Sunday, the Communist Party of India (Marxist, CPI-M), of which he was a founding leader, was still struggling to spell out its position towards religion and communalism.
CPI-M general secretary Prakash Karat, writing in People's Democracy, the party organ of which Basu was the first editor, quoted Marx and Lenin to settle an evidently nagging issue with a party member from Kerala. The former MP, it seems, had quit the party because of its recent distancing from religion.
The other main issue in the party organ that day concerned a bitter and bloody war with Maoist guerrillas under way in the CPI-M-ruled West Bengal, which has nudged the party into an embarrassing alignment with a stridently militarist Indian state. The confrontation has impaired the left's support base and divided its ranks as never before.
Commenting on an issue that should have been normally handled by basic party cells, Karat reaffirmed that Marxism was a materialist philosophy and its views on religion shared the same roots as the Enlightenment philosophers of the 18th century. Based on this, Marxists wanted the state to treat religion as a private affair. There should be a separation of state and religion.
To back the tricky view, Karat threw in Karl Marx's famous lines “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of the heartless world, just as it is the spirit of the spiritless situation.” Hence, the CPI-M chief said, Marxism does not attack religion per se. But social conditions make it “the sigh of the oppressed creature”.
Lenin too had posed the question about the tussle between religion and Marxist atheism. “If this is so, why do we not declare in our programme that we are atheists? Why do we not forbid Christians and other believers in God to join our party?”
Lenin himself answered the questions and Karat quoted him too. “Unity in this really revolutionary struggle of the oppressed class for the creation of a paradise on earth is more important to us than unity of proletarian opinion on paradise in heaven.”
All told these arguments come across as compelling reasons for Marxists universally, and in India principally, to accommodate religion in their rigid worldview. In a country of many beliefs and, worse, entrenched obscurantism, the need to tread even more delicately could never be over-emphasised. Going by the discussion Karat has broached, the problem persists and has not waned.
And this in a crucial way sets the context of Basu's record 23 years as chief minister of West Bengal. The question is not that Basu was the CPI-M's winning racehorse. Rather it may be asked why the horse was never given a large enough arena to flaunt its pedigree.
After studying law in England, Basu returned to Kolkata in 1940 and became a leader of the Eastern Bengal Railroad Workers' Union. He was elected to the Bengal legislative assembly in 1946. After partition, he remained a member of the assembly but was arrested when the Communist Party of India was banned following its call for open revolt. He was released upon the orders of the high court and remained a legislative assembly member between 1952 and 1972.
In the 1950s Basu, with Pramode Dasgupta, became the joint leader of the West Bengal communists. He became state party secretary and led the parliamentary tactics of the CPI in Bengal against the Congress. The anti-Congress nature of Bengali communism led Basu to align with the CPI-M following the division of the Communist Party of India in 1964.
In 1967 Basu became deputy chief minister in a coalition United Front government in Bengal in which the CPI-M was a key partner. In 1977, following Indira Gandhi's emergency rule, Basu was elected to parliament from Satgachia. The CPI-M also won a majority in the Bengal legislative assembly. Basu became chief minister of West Bengal and under his leadership the CPI-M won successive elections.
Ruling West Bengal as the longest serving chief minister was good for the record books and perhaps for the party's morale, but what credit did that do him or his communist ideology which has remained confined to two or three states in India?
There is no doubt in anybody's mind that Jyoti Basu was a fine administrator and with time he became one of India's most popular leaders. Had the CPI-M politburo not opposed the move, he would have become the country's first communist prime minister in 1996.
Basu described the move to reject the forming of government as a historic blunder. But he may have been wrong. The more damaging mistakes had probably occurred earlier. One of them happened when Indian communists aligned with rightist groups to oppose the centrist but stridently authoritarian Congress.
They first joined hands with the rightwing Jana Sangh in 1967 in what were known as SVD governments. They later supported the formation of an anti-Congress national government in 1977 in which the Jana Sangh and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh members became powerful partners. Finally they shored up a coalition government in 1990 which gave the Bharatiya Janata Party both legitimacy and unprecedented seats in parliament.
Having flirted with Hindu revivalists at the federal level, the CPI-M frequently leaned on the communally inspired Muslim League to shore up its government in Kerala. Most of these manouevres bore the hallmark of bourgeois parties with little purpose for revolutionary pretence, something that communists of Basu's vintage should never have been exposed to.
Unlike the RSS, the communists participated in the independence struggle and, as members of the Congress Socialist Party, became a formidable presence on the socialist wing of the Indian National Congress. They were expelled from the Congress Socialist Party in March 1940, after allegations that the communists had disrupted party activities and were intent on co-opting party organisations. This was the year when Basu returned from studies in England and joined the party.Since 1991, Basu was engaged in undoing the damage caused by the CPI-M's support to political coalitions in which rightwing revivalists including the BJP were key partners. This has brought the CPI-M closer to Congress but the party has avoided an outright coalition.
Basu's death has come at vulnerable moment for his party. Rightwing consolidation is under way in national politics at full throttle. Religious revivalism has swamped nearly every political formation. The left camp is sharply divided over the tactics towards the Maoist upsurge. That's the legacy Basu has left behind even if it is not entirely of his own making.
Karat will have to lift the debate higher than the simplistic commandments put out in the party organ that have clearly not worked. He may want to quote Marx's declared motto to begin with “Doubt everything!” That may include some of the tenets that stymied Basu's otherwise brilliant quest for a just society.
The writer is Dawn's correspondent in Delhi.