30 years later, Jyoti Basu is active at 94

By Sujoy Dhar, IANS

Kolkata : As the Left Front celebrates a record breaking three decades in power in West Bengal, the man who was at the helm for over a quarter century is still in demand: the irrepressible Jyoti Basu.

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At age 94, and seven full years after he stepped down as chief minister, Basu has emerged from retirement to defuse tensions caused by the widely flayed police action against people opposed to takeover of farmland for industry.

As he meets opposition leader Mamata Banerjee to try calm her down, it is evident the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) is realizing the importance of the country's still best known Marxist icon, one who almost became prime minister a decade ago.

With the Left Front making history by completing 30 years of uninterrupted governance Thursday, the man who took oath this day (June 21) in 1977 is at the heart of the anniversary though he is no more in the government.

Basu recalls: "When we won the election in 1977, huge crowds gathered to greet us in front of the Writers Buildings. I told them that we would not rule from Writers Buildings alone. We will involve the workers, employees, officers, and common people from all sections."

Basu can rightly be termed the last of the communist poster boys in India.

In May 1996, Basu was chosen by the centre-Left United Front coalition as prime minister candidate. Basu was to keen to take the job, but the puritan CPI-M was opposed to the idea of a Marxist presiding over a government whose policies were going to be anything leftist.

Basu later dubbed the party's decision not to let him be the prime minister a "historic blunder".

A bitter Basu told his biographer Surabhi Banerjee: "I had categorically ruled out the idea of being the prime minister before but in politics there are moments when you have to rise to the occasion and you've got to cater to the need of the hour and the pleas of the people… I was doing just that."

If today the Left does play a key role in the Indian government, the credit goes to a handful of leaders such as Jyoti Basu.

Born July 8, 1914 in Kolkata, Basu, son of a judge, got his schooling at St. Xavier's School. He graduated from Presidency College of Kolkata with an honours degree from the Art Faculty in 1935. He then went to London to study law.

Through Bhupesh Gupta, Basu was introduced to the Communist Party of Great Britain. He got involved in Left circles of Indian students in England, and also came in contact with British communist leaders.

In London he became a member of the "India League, London", a member of the "Federation of Indian Students in Great Britain" and the secretary of the "London Majlis".

On return to India, Basu became a member of the Communist Party of India (CPI) and got into trade union activties. The CPI delegated him to work among the railway workers.

Basu was elected to the undivided Bengal assembly in 1946 for the first time.

Winning elections since then became a habit for Basu. After India's independence, Basu was elected to the West Bengal assembly in 1952, 1957, 1962, 1967, 1969, 1971, 1977, 1982, 1987, 1991 and 1996.

When the CPI split in 1964, Basu became a prominent leader of the breakaway group called the CPI-M. He is today only one of two of the nine leaders who set up the CPI-M politburo and are alive. The other is Harkishan Singh Surjeet.

Basu was in 1967 and 1969 deputy chief minister of two short-lived United Front governments. It was a time when West Bengal passed through a terribly violent phase in politics.

Once the Congress-imposed Emergency rule ended, the CPI-M capitalized on people's anger against government repression to take power in West Bengal in June 1977.

Under Basu's leadership, the party expanded its social base in the villages and captured the rural vote bank. His government brought about agrarian reforms, earning solid support in villages.

The CPI-M soon developed well-oiled election machinery. Amid opposition allegations of rigging, Basu led the communists to power in West Bengal five times in a row from 1977.

His tenure as chief minister was not without allegations of corruption, especially against his industrialist son. But the allegations remained only allegations.

While the agrarian reforms in West Bengal was hailed as a model across the country, Basu fared poorly in the industrial, educational and health sectors.

A pragmatic, Basu's strength was in keeping the Left Front united after the death of Pramode Dasgupta, the party strongman.

Basu relinquished his office as chief minister for health reasons in November 2000. But as the CPI-M politburo member, he continues to play a big role in the party and national politics.