“Jyoti Basu was a rabid Marxist Communist and I was a rabid anti-Marxist Communist. That is where our separation begins and that is also where our closeness begins,” said Siddhartha Shankar Ray, former Chief Minister of West Bengal, and perhaps the senior-most politician in the country to have known Mr. Basu closely.
“We knew each other since 1946-47,” he said wistfully glancing around a living room where he had shared many a moment with a man he described as a delightful company and a good friend to have.
“He was a great human being; it is an irreplaceable loss for the entire country,” he said.
Defying his age and the cold, the 89-year-old Mr. Ray visited Mr. Basu twice since January 1. “I saw him only yesterday and today they say he is gone.”
Mr, Ray reminisced his days with Mr. Basu during an interview to The Hindu a fortnight ago. He had said: “We had enormous fights in the Legislative Assembly, of which both of us were members from 1956 to 1992. Jyoti was there from 1945. While in the Assembly we fought like Kilkenny cats. But as soon as that political fight was over, whether within the Assembly or outside, people would not believe that we were the same two who were crossing swords viciously.”
Mr. Ray added with a chuckle that many had thought that the two towering political personalities of those times were also great stage-actors!
“We were genuine in our fight and in our friendship – our arguments and political fights were rabid but never acrimonious,” Mr. Ray remembered even as a wave of nostalgia engulfed him as he turned pages from an album at his South Kolkata residence. “We were totally relaxed in each other’s company.”
Mr. Ray had interesting anecdotes to narrate – like a 1971 meeting he helped to organise between the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Mr. Basu.
To keep the meeting secret, Mr. Ray, then a Union Minister, drove Mr. Basu to Indira Gandhi’s Safdarjung residence around midnight using his wife’s car.
The half-an-hour meeting over, the two started their journey back – only to realise a little later that Mr. Ray (used as he was to being driven around) had lost his way and was actually going round in circles.
“I tried to call a policeman and Jyoti hissed – ‘Idiot! It will be all over the town!” A few circles later, Mr. Ray got his co-ordinates right and the secrecy of that midnight-rendezvous was kept intact.
So what would Mr. Ray remember his friend for – “I would remember him for being a very good administrator who kept the party in control and the coalition running for over two decades.”
Bureaucracy failed him
Mr. Ray also remembered how as Ambassador to the United States he tried to get projects for West Bengal at a time when Mr. Basu started easing the economy. But the bureaucracy failed him on many an instance, Mr. Ray said.
“We were together for 60 years. I do miss my friend Jyoti,” he said. And the smile was gone.