"This dal (lentil) is too sloppy! No one can eat it," he complained to the cook, who had this retort: "This is what can be arranged with the money you provide us."
The man stared at the cook, blankly for a few moments, and then started eating whatever was provided to him. Quietly.
It was a sweltering day in the summer of 2004 when I was sitting in the kitchen with him, waiting for him to finish his meal so that I could get a sound bite for my TV story. That day, I couldn't believe that an ordinary cook could snub the boss of a national party in such a rude manner. He was one of the tallest leaders of Left politics - Comrade AB Bardhan, the General Secretary of Communist Party of India (CPI). According to the rules, he was provided a bungalow in Lutyen's Delhi, but he never checked in. Instead, it was used by his party comrades. He himself settled happily in a small, utilitarian room in the party office - Ajoy Bhawan.
Mr Bardhan died on Saturday evening after a long illness. People who knew him closely know that he was as simple as his politics were aggressive. A trade union leader and a die-hard communist, he often lost his temper when asked questions by TV reporters. Perhaps he knew that that's why we would often go to him: he always gave the perfect TV soundbite - short, pithy and fiery. He would even shout at reporters for asking their "silly" questions, yet melted as soon as he had vented his anger.
"We were on a campaign trail that day in a remote village. Comrade Bardhan wanted to have tea at a roadside dhaba. A comrade said, 'Dada, you are the General Secretary of our party and we don't have even a chair for you to sit down here. Let's have tea at a better place somewhere else.' Dada smiled and looked around. Then he sat on a big stone nearby, saying that it doesn't make a difference if you have risen to a top position in party or politics. That was Bardhan Dada," recalls Amarjeet Kaur, CPI leader and long-time comrade of Bardhan, who saw him working from close quarters.
The era of Bardhan is over. He was perhaps the last leader of the league of Left stalwarts like Harkishan Singh Surjeet, Jyoti Basu, Bhupesh Gupta, Indrajeet Gupta, Geeta Mukherjee and Anil Biswas.
He spent most of his early life in Maharashtra and was influenced by leaders like Sudam Deshmukh. He wasn't as renowned as Surjeet was for his sharp political maneuvering acumen, or like Basu or Gupta for their administrative skills. He was more recognized for his impatience, for calling a spade a spade, and never bothering about whether that would offend his own comrades.
After winning some five dozen seats in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections and a historic seventh consecutive win in Bengal in 2006, the Left was positioned pretty well in the political spectrum. Suddenly it started crumbling when protests erupted in Nandigram and then Singur. The Left had to face public wrath for its "anti-farmer and pro industry policies". Bardhan was among the first to caution the comrades for their apparent mistake. He was most eager to pull out of the UPA government when Dr. Manmohan Singh wasn't relenting to give up the nuclear deal with the US.
Disgusted by the UPA's pro-market approach, he was the first to announce that "the honeymoon is over". Bardhan was most critical of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee's handling of Mamata Banerjee in Bengal. Soon after the humiliating defeat of the Left front in the Lok Sabha elections in 2009, he told me in an interview that the 2011 Assembly polls in Bengal shouldn't be fought under Bhattacharjee.
"He doesn't like any kind of display of arrogance and he doesn't want the use of any foul of filthy language for political opponents," said a close associate of Bardhan when political fireworks were the rule of thumb for the Left and Trinamool Congress in West Bengal after the Nandigram and Singur debacles. He also made some controversial decisions - it was he who decided to go with Lalu Prasad's RJD in Bihar in the 2005 assembly polls, despite the CPM rejecting this alliance. He received much criticism for this step.
Despite all these disagreements, Bardhan was the most enthusiastic supporter of Left unity, if not its merger.
Bardhan openly said that though there are leaders in both the CPI and CPM who would oppose the merger, working together could only yield benefits. Today, when the Left front is so marginalized in Parliament and even less recognized in the streets, the words of Bardhan should ring loud for those who have any desire to keep it relevant in Indian politics.
(Hridayesh Joshi is Senior Editor, NDTV India.)
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