I had the honour of first meeting Jyoti Basu in Calcutta on the eve of Partition. I had gone to the city to attend a conference of the International Student Federation. I was a student of Government College, Lahore, as I had been expelled from Uttar Pradesh on my release from the Mirzapur jail during the Quit India movement.
I met him again over half-a-century later — on December 22, 2004, when a political crisis was brewing due to the differences between the Congress and the CPI (M). I was afraid that should the CPI (M) withdraw its support, the secular, UPA government at the Centre would fall and the communal forces would gain in strength.
The 90-year-old Communist leader received us cordially at his Kolkata home. His biographer, Surabhi Banerjee, Vice-Chancellor of the Netaji Subhas Open University, and France Marquet, a South Asia Foundation trustee, accompanied me. I was astonished by Jyoti Basu’s extraordinary memory when he recalled my meeting with him in 1947. He was keenly interested in the two Peace Campaign exhibitions I had organised at the Government College and the Lahore Museum then. He admired the illustrations of paintings and photographs in my UNESCO book, The Sasia Story. I told him that ‘sasia’ (South-Asia) was the name I had coined for a common currency, like the Euro, and as in Europe it might well become the anchor of economic stability and regional cooperation in South Asia. Then I broached the subject of the CPI(M)’s support to the Congress-led government at the Centre. The Left parties should not commit another “historic blunder,” I said. Jyoti Basu paused and said: “We depend on the Congress as much as the Congress depends on us,” adding: “We have been telling them that the unravelling of the UPA will inevitably bring the BJP to power, not us — the Third Front.”
Surabhi had already cautioned us that Jyotiji received visitors for no more than 10 minutes. And as we had already spent about half-an-hour with him, I stood up to leave. He led us to a corner of the room where he unveiled a life-size statue of his, made by a young village artist. As he stood beside the sculpture, France commented that it was as good as the wax sculptures at Madame Tussauds, London. “That’s right,” he said with a sense of pride and added with a twinkle in his eye: “Bengalis are born artists.”
(UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador Madanjeet Singh is the founder of South Asia Foundation.)