Communist icon Jyoti Basu, who almost became India’s PM, is dead

By Sirshendu Panth, Aparajita Gupta and Soudhriti Bhabani, IANS,

Kolkata : Jyoti Basu, one of India’s tallest political leaders whose influence extended far beyond his home state of West Bengal that he ruled for a record 23 years, died here Sunday. He was 95. He would have become India’s prime minister in 1996 had not his Marxist-Communist party ruled against his taking charge of a loose centre-Left alliance.

Support TwoCircles

Basu died after a 16-day battle in the AMRI Hospital. He is survived by his businessman son Chandan. His wife Kamal had predeceased him in 2003.

Basu, who had been ailing for months but remained agile mentally as he kept in touch with national affairs, was admitted to the hospital Jan 1 following chest congestion and infection. He was moved to the Intensive Cardiac Care Unit (ICCU) Jan 2 and put on ventilator Jan 6 after the respiratory problem became acute.

Although his six decades of political life was confined to West Bengal, the pragmatic Marxist came to be seen as an icon in both the Left movement and national politics, and many a prime minister turned to him for advice – earning him a stature no other Communist can ever hope to achieve.

Only on Saturday, during a visit to Kolkata, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had described Basu as “a great son of India”.

“I have had a very long association with Basu. On many occasions, I turned to him for his sagacious advice on all matters, whether they related to West Bengal or to issues of national importance,” the prime minister said. “His advice was statesman-like but always pragmatic and based on unshakable values that he championed throughout his political career.”

As President Pratibha Patil and Manmohan Singh led the entire political spectrum in paying rich tributes, thousands of people, many of them weeping, joined a winding procession as the body was taken from the AMRI Hospital to a funeral parlour about six kilometres away.

His death was announced at 11.47 a.m. by a sobbing Biman Bose, a senior leader of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), which Basu helped set up in 1964 following a split in the Communist Party of India (CPI).

With Chandan by his side, Biman Bose, his voice shaking, told reporters: “I have come to give you a sad news. Jyoti Basu is now no more with us. He has left us. I can’t say anything more now…”

In no time, West Bengal was plunged into mourning, and the red flag was flown at half mast in all the hundreds of party offices across the state. Senior CPI-M leaders, Basu’s relatives and party activists broke down and wept inconsolably as party cadres periodically chanted the slogan: “Jyoti Basu, Lal Salaam, Lal Salaam (red salute)”.

Arun Jaitley of the staunchly anti-Communist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) described him as a “role model for Indian politics”. He said Basu was “a politician of high credibility. He is one of the leaders from whom we all have learned something”.

Congress spokesman Shakeel Ahmed told IANS: “Without doubt he was one of the worthiest sons of India. He lived his life with simplicity and stood for uprightness in public life.”

“There will be none like Jyoti Basu again,” is how CPI-M general secretary Prakash Karat saluted the man he prevented from becoming the prime minister in 1996. “With his passing away, an era has passed.” Karat and his wife Brinda were at Kolkata to receive his body and act as pall-bearers when it reached his Salt Lake residence from the hospital.

The most charismatic product of India’s fractured Communist movement, Basu was West Bengal’s chief minister from June 1977 to November 2000, heading five successive Left Front governments. Basu’s death comes at a time when the popularity of West Bengal’s ruling Left Front has plummeted to its lowest ebb, a development that worried the veteran Marxist till he lost consciousness.

Basu reached the zenith of his political career in 1996 when a centre-Left United Front alliance unanimously asked Basu to lead the nation as prime minister. Basu was willing but the Stalinist CPI-M declined the offer, arguing it would not lead a government whose policies it cannot determine.

He also played the kingmaker’s role adroitly. He helped in stitching together coalition governments led by V.P. Singh in 1989, H.D. Deve Gowda in 1996 and Inder Kumar Gujral in 1997.

In 2004, Basu and CPI-M stalwart Harkishan Singh Surjeet impressed upon the Left parties to lend support to the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government of Manmohan Singh.

Born July 8, 1914 in Kolkata, Basu, son of a doctor, had his schooling in Christian Missionary-run Loreto and St. Xavier’s. He graduated from the Presidency College with English honours in 1935.

He became a barrister from London’s Lincoln Inn but decided to embrace Communism after coming into contact with British Communist leaders such as Harry Pollitt and Rajani Palme Dutt.

On returning to India, Basu became a whole-timer of the then undivided CPI and worked among railway workers. He won his maiden election to the Bengal assembly in 1946. After independence, he was elected to the state assembly on 11 occasions.

When the CPI split in 1964, Basu became a key leader of the breakaway CPI-M.

In 1967 and 1969, Basu was deputy chief minister of short-lived United Front governments in the violence-torn state. He lost his only election to the assembly in 1972, but became the chief minister five years later.

Under Basu’s leadership, the Left Front government brought about agrarian reforms through Operation Barga, devolution of power to local rural bodies or panchayats and introduced various relief measures and experimented in agricultural development through government support to the small holdings.

Indian industry also paid him tribute – through he was widely blamed for the flight of industry from West Bengal in the seventies that saw the birth of militant left-wing trade unionism – with the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) the state of West Bengal “made significant progress towards inclusive growth and development”.

Basu also vigorously demanded more powers for the states in the early 1980s. He played a key part in bringing together the non-Congress state governments and parties, laying the ground for future alliances at the national level.

Basu stepped down for health reasons in November 2000, but as a CPI-M politburo member he continued to play a big role in the party and national politics.

It was unclear till Sunday evening whether he would be cremated or his body donated for medical research as he had once desired.