Ardhendu Bhushan Bardhan had many stories to tell: about his days as a trade union activist, memories and assessments of contemporary Indian political figures. Occasionally, he even admitted to some mistakes of the party Left in India. His death, on New Year's Day, at the age of 92, signals the end of a generation of communists who had a vantage view of history, had personally met many of the revolutionary fighters of the past century, been part of intense ideological debate. They had made great strides and perhaps greater errors.
The last time I sat down to a full fledged interview with Bardhan was in May 2012, a month after he had stepped down as general secretary of the Communist Party of India after four terms that began in 1996. That day I noticed in his room at Ajoy Bhawan, the CPI headquarters in Delhi, a painting of Ho Chi Minh gifted by people from Vietnam and a poster of Che Guevera that was a gift from some by Cubans. I remember thinking that the age of great revolution has certainly gone by.
Yet it's clear that the significance of Bardhan and other Indian communists in shaping the contours of debate remains greater than their diminishing electoral clout in parliament and the states.
Even as many argue with the party Left about their ideological rigidity, intellectual arrogance and ostrich-like view of the world, no one can ever doubt the innate honesty and integrity of individuals like Comrade Bardhan.
Now that he is no more, I can reveal that Bardhan was the source who handed me one of the best investigative stories of my career. It was the summer of 2004 and I had dropped in on the very amiable and avancular communist veteran at Ajoy Bhawan. After the usual tea and conversation, Comrade Bardhan suddenly produced a thick file and said, see if you can make something out of this.
These were documents that gave the bare bones of the story about the disinvestment of the Juhu Centaur hotel in Mumbai. I took the file back to the office of Outlook magazine where I then worked and turned to my bureau chief, Ajith Pillai, to help me make sense of the minutes of meetings of boards and committees that were manipulating the sale. We realised we were sitting on explosive material but we had to do a lot of leg-work to confirm and re-confirm facts. The story, titled “A Hotel’s Dirty Linen”, created a storm in parliament, seriously embarrassed the National Democratic Alliance’s disinvestment minister, Arun Shourie, and exposing the very dubious disinvestment policy of the Vajpayee regime.
Bardhan was naturally delighted and it was the Left MPs who really raised a racket about the sale in parliament. After that, over the years I made it a point to drop in on him every now and then and almost always returned with a great anecdote, a memory, a conversation that lingered.
Vajpayee and Manmohan
I vividly remember his rage with former prime minister Manmohan Singh, whom he believed was principally engaged in bringing India closer to the US at the cost of traditional allies. In the first term of the United Progressive Alliance, when the Left parties supported the Manmohan Singh regime, there were many stormy coordination committee meetings and the dislike for the prime minister became palpable.
Bardhan had a far better equation with another former prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Bardhan told me a delicious anecdote about how Vajpayee once summoned him and the former general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) Harkishen Singh Surjeet. In carefully chosen Hindi words Vajpayee told the two communist veterans that their protests against the US action in Iraq were weak and they should step it up. At that time, Vajpayee was trying to side-step a section in his own party and government that wanted India to join the so called US-led war on terror.
Bardhan was a player in Delhi and individuals like him and the late Indrajit Gupta actually gave the CPI a higher profile in the national then merited by the party’s actual numbers in parliament. But there was also a persistent critique of Bardhan’s enthusiasm for Left unity, which some members felt had reduced the CPI to an appendage of the CPI(M).
Like other communists Bardhan never had a good answer as to why even post-Mandal, members of the upper castes and Brahmins continued to dominate structures in the Left parties. He would reply that it happened because a certain level of literacy was needed to understand the ideology of Marxism and socialism. The answer was never good enough to explain the atrophy in the Left but it was an honest answer.
As a political reporter for nearly two decades, I have had the best of relations (and the worst) with politicians across the ideological spectrum. These are ultimately professional engagements. But Bardhan was the sort of figure a mere reporter could grow quite fond of. He was an institution in Delhi and some of us who found time to occasionally visit will miss him.