Jyoti Malhotra met him in his home on Alipore Park Road, in his study lined with books by Marx and Engels that have kept him company in the good days and the bad days. In the good days, he was in the forefront of the movement, the toast of town and Calcutta was a Left paradise which, as he wrote in Seminar in 2006, 'taught the (city) the language of protest.'
Today's Kolkata has changed beyond recognition, and in the run up to the May 13 poll is suffused with an anti-CPI-M mood that could carry Mamata Bannerjee's Trinamool Congress to an unprecedented crest.
Mitra's A Prattler's Tale: Bengal, Marxism and Governance, published in 2007 but accumulated over the previous decades, came out around the time CPI-M cadres in police clothing fired upon the peasantry protesting land acquisition in Nandigram. This and the Singur incidents changed Mitra's relationship with his comrades.
'Till death I would remain guilty to my conscience if I keep mum about the happenings of the last two weeks in West Bengal over Nandigram. One gets torn by pain too. Those against whom I am speaking have been my comrades at some time. The party whose leadership they are adorning has been the centre of my dreams and works for last 60 years,' Mitra wrote soon after the Nandigram firing.
As an old party ideologue and a key member of Jyoti Basu's government, what is your view about things unfolding in West Bengal these days?
I am getting old, I hardly leave my apartment anymore, but I am burning up inside. That is because I continue to nurse my old ideology, that is the problem.
Those in charge now are philosophers of the short-term They put all their eggs in the Tatas basket (in Singur, where the Tatas wanted to construct the Nano car factory) and Tata walked all over them. That's what burns me up inside. That not one responsible leader dared to express one word of discontent with what Tata was doing, the fact that he was leaving the government in the lurch.
They don't have the capability and the guts to develop a public sector. Delhi was hostage to them for more than four years, they could have forced the government to allocate Rs 40-50,000 crores (Rs 400 billion to Rs 500 billion) to them. They call themselves Communists and socialists and yet they don't have the courage to try and develop a flourishing public sector in the state (of West Bengal).
But maybe they didn't have the money to develop the public sector, which is why they thought of outsourcing to private enterprise?
That is what they say, that they didn't have the money, so they had to depend on the private sector. I am not willing to accept that. They had more than 60 MPs in the last Parliament, they could have pressed the government to give them money.
Secondly, on this sensitive issue of industrialisation, you don't have to acquire fertile, multi-crop land on which two or three crops are grown every year. There are acres and acres of land lying near Dum Dum (the airport in Kolkata), where factories have closed down recently...
If you say yourself that nearly 30,000 factories have closed down in the state over the last few years, then why could you not use that land? They speak of legal problems behind not being able to use that land, but there seemed to be no initiative.
Did the CPI-M fail in putting out its message?
Even if you take over multi-crop land, there are ways and ways to do so. The CPI-M swept the assembly polls in 2006. I wrote a very complimentary piece in the Economic & Political Weekly at the time praising the CPI-M to the high heavens, but at the end of the piece I added a note of warning. I pointed out that we had lost Howrah, 24 Parganas and Hooghly districts because there was talk of land acquisition in these areas and that we must proceed carefully.
Didn't the party take notice?
Problem is, they don't discuss these things. They have very strong kisan sabhas in Singur, but they didn't talk to them, they only talked to each other in Writers' Buildings (where the office of Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya is located).
So what do you think happened? Why did this happen?
The problem is with this doctrine of democratic centralism, it gets debased. Given the feudal roots of our society, all the advice is rendered from top to bottom, never from bottom to top. Even when advice is given from bottom to top it is ignored. The whole thing was mishandled.
Why did things happen as they did at Nandigram?
The grossest blunder was in Nandigram. The party knew there would be resistance, but they issued a circular to take over the land. There were no prior instructions to the police force. A Communist party rests on the support of the peasantry. Mamata blocked the highway...
The government, originally haughty and unthinking, became totally passive and incompetent.
You think the party machinery failed?
The party machinery consists of the rank and file. The panchayat polls (in which the Left Front lost 15 out of 16 panchayats in May 2008, that took place a year after the firing in Nandigram), showed a shift of the mass base by at least 7 per cent.
The Lok Sabha results will depend on the extent the party is able to win this support back. If they fail, the CPI-M will lose about 12 seats, if they are successful, they will lose only 6, 7 seats.
What about the party at the centre?
They are highly intelligent people, very smart, but the problem is that many of them don't have a political base. They have come through the student movement, through Jawaharlal Nehru University and other places. They have to depend on the party structure and beyond a point, cannot render substantial advice to the party. That is how the state units control the centre.
Why were there so many differences between the state and central party units on the India-US nuclear deal?
The state units are very insular, they are not interested in foreign policy, only in their own problems. You hardly hear the revolutionary cry anymore, Inquilab Zindabad! The spirit of internationalism is over.
How do you look at China and India's relationship with it?
China is no longer a Communist country. You can consider it a rival or friend, and depending upon the exigencies of the market, invite the Americans or the Chinese into India.
But maybe the CPI-M, like everyone else, is moving with the times...
You may have to redo your books, but it doesn't mean that you have to ditch your old beliefs. That is the dilemma before the party today.
What do you think of CPI-M General Secretary Prakash Karat?
I am full of admiration for him. But he should have forced the party not to commit such a blunder on the matter of land acquisition (in Nandigram and Singur). And when the party did what it did, it should have sought forgiveness from the people.
Do you think they did well by supporting the United Progressive Alliance in the last four years?
The CPI-M should have arrived at a much harder bargain, they could have got much more out of the Congress-led government. The original blunder was committed in 2004. If they fare badly in the Lok Sabha polls today, then this lady Mamata Banerjee will be permanently occupying the streets and the highways. There will be chaos.
I don't think the state government will last.
But what will that mean for the party?
It will be a cleansing of the party. But through this period of tribulation, the party will emerge with greater strength.
You think the party needs to undergo 'self-criticism'...
There are many Communist leaders who say, he's a 'goonda', but he is my 'goonda'. That is wrong. They should never be allowed to come to the forefront.
Today there are more than 270,000 party members in the CPI-M, of which 90 per cent are post-1977 members and 65 per cent post-1991 members. Most of these people have only seen the good days.
If the party loses power, they will also disappear...
The party has ceased to be a revolutionary party, it has become a bourgeois party.
Do you think it is the end of Operation Barga (when the CPI-M-led Left Front, from 1978 to 1984, gave tenancy rights on more than a million hectares to more than a million sharecroppers)?
We gave land to the bargadars (sharecroppers), but now these divided and sub-divided small pieces of land are no longer economically viable. So what is the next step? You have to encourage the peasantry to imbibe the art and science of cooperatives. Start with service cooperatives and then you can move to the cooperative tilling of land. There should have been serious experiments in this regard.
The CPI-M has been instrumental in the creation of the Third Front. Do you think it will survive?
It all depends if people like Mayawati and Chandrababu Naidu stay on... These days, I am gradually returning to my old thesis that there is no such thing as India.
If Mayawati wins 40 seats, the politics of the country will turn turtle.
Today's national picture, where the power rests with the states and not with the Centre, is like the picture of India before the British took power in India.
So what happens by the end of the week in India today?
I don't know about that. I vote for the CPI-M. That is because I believe in the party. It is a wonderful party, but it has been pushed on the wrong rails in West Bengal.