Veteran Communist leader Jyoti Basu died Jan. 17 at age 95. This grand man of Indian politics and socialist movement had tremendous popularity and respect among the Indian people, as was evident by huge public outpourings of concern in recent days as his health steadily deteriorated.
According to The New York Times, “Anxious crowds gathered outside his Calcutta hospital, local newspapers carried front-page updates on his condition and a litany of leading Indian politicians, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, made calls to him.”
He died of multiple organ failure, according to media reports.
Basu was the longest ruling Communist chief minister (a position similar to a U.S. governor) for 23 years, from 1977 to 2000. His state of West Bengal today is populated by 90 million people. He led the four left and communist parties of India to victory for 32 years through popular elections.
Basu was known as a highly-skilled parliamentarian and builder of coalitions, especially coalitions that would uphold a basic tenet of Indian society, like secularism. So impressive was his secularism that religion-based parties, like the extreme rightwing Hindu BJP, failed to procure a single seat in the West Bengal’s legislature.
Basu’s signature policies as chief minister were massive land reform and democracy for the rural poor. Immediately after the Communist-led coalition won in West Bengal, eviction of sharecroppers was stopped. Shares of crop were guaranteed by a seemingly easy move now, but difficult then, recording the sharecroppers name.
Large amounts of land were distributed to struggling farmers, reshaping West Bengal and Indian politics for decades.
Democracy was introduced at the grassroots by holding panchayat elections, a form of local self-government, giving poor farmers and villagers a voice in areas where large landowners usually ruled.
Basu was so respected that in 1996, when a majority of non-Congress, non-BJP parties won the majority of the national elections (Lok Sabha), Basu was offered the prime minister post. However, Basu’s party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), nixed his accepting the prime minister spot. The reason, the party said, was the CPI (M) did not hold the majority of Lok Sabha seats. Basu called the decision a “historic blunder.” Yet, he remained a stalwart leader of the CPI (M).
The CPI (M) leadership sent out messages of “its profound grief at the passing away” of Basu, calling him a “senior most leader of the Party and one of the tallest leaders of the Communist movement in India.”
The CPI (M) continued the tribute saying “Basu belonged to the leadership of the CPI (M) which steered the Party through the difficult days of semi-fascist terror in West Bengal in the early seventies. One has to recall how as chief minister he dealt with the situation after the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984 when violence against Sikhs broke out in various parts of the country, but nothing was allowed to happen in West Bengal.” In the early seventies, then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had declared emergency rule, suspending numerous democratic rights and imprisoning many political opponents.
Prakash Karat, CPI (M) general secretary, said, “Basu was a great leader of the CPI(M), the Left movement and India. With his passing away an era has passed. Although he died at the age of 95, he leaves us bereft, because there will be none like JB again. An ardent communist, he was one of the few political leaders of independent India who actually deepened democracy, strengthened secularism and got the working people to the center stage of Indian politics.”
Others from across Indian politics offered their condolences and paid glowing tributes to Basu. India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described Basu as “a great son of India.”
President of India Pratibha Patil, a woman leader Basu had worked with and helped get elected, paid tribute to the stalwart. The president said Basu earned the unique distinction of being the longest serving chief minister of any state from the late seventies to 2000, and displayed his abilities as a leader of the people, an able administrator and an eminent statesman.
Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee called him “a towering personality” and credited him as the “architect” of the first UPA government. “I have lost a great well wisher,” he said.
Vice President of India Hamid Ansari said, “Basu has made a significant contribution to the public life and especially to the development of West Bengal.”
The deep love and respect for Basu among the working masses of India led to a condolence resolution from an unlikely source. The right-wing BJP, against which Basu fought all his life, passed a resolution of condolences, calling Basu, “One of the tallest contemporary leaders of Indian politics.”
Poetic statements from Sonia Gandhi, chair person of the ruling party, Indian National Congress, and Home Minister P. Chidambram added to the country’s salute.
Referring to his pneumonia lasting 17 days, Gandhi said, ” Jyoti Basu did not go gentle into the good night. He fought bravely till his last breath, just as he did throughout his life,” and added that “he had a rich, fulfilled and glorious life.”
“Basu strode like a colossus on the Indian political scene for several decades. He was a great patriot, a great democrat, a great Parliamentarian and a great source of inspiration,” Chidambram said.
Educated in a Catholic school, St. Xaviers, during the British colonial rule, Basu came from a well-off family, who had some connections to freedom fighters involved in the struggle for India’s independence. He was sent to the UK to further his education. And it was here Basu met Communists and Marxists like R. Palme Dutt.
He returned to India in 1940 and joined the CPI.
Although a lawyer, Basu became a full-time CPI organizer, and went to work among India’s dock and railway workers. He fought and won the release of political prisoners during Britain’s colonial rule. And in 1948, he was repeatedly arrested after the Communist Party was banned shortly after Independence.
One example of Basu’s personal courage came during a 13-month-long United Front West Bengal government, which was voted to power in 1969. Basu became the deputy to the chief minister and also put in charge of the state’s law enforcement agencies. A large group of armed policemen stormed the government offices to protest the death of a colleague, and Basu faced the armed group alone, and defused the situation.
While referred to as a “nonconventional” Communist or “non-orthodox” Marxist, Basu epitomized being a “true Communist and Marxist,” many noted. The CPI (M) said Basu was a Marxist who neither wavered in his convictions nor was dogmatic in his approach, becoming a source of inspiration for the Left movement in the country.
It was well known that the CPI (M)’s decision to see the Congress Party as a secular partner in the fight against Indian communalism was largely led by Basu’s nonsectarian outlook.
As thousands of red flags are flying half mast through the length and breadth of Indian communist parties’ offices, there are tributes received by parties and from political figures of all hues from all over the world.
The Communist Party of India, from which many CPI (M) leaders split in 1964, never dithered in providing its own support to him. CPI General Secretary A. B. Bardhan expressed his heart felt sadness on Basu’s demise. Calling him the tallest of leaders, Bardhan recalled the motivation of the veteran’s life, “Basu fought for the poor and the downtrodden. He was an icon of working class movement and a model for good governance. He was an able administrator and good human being. His rule of more than quarter century has changed the face of rural Bengal and paved the path for agriculture and industrial development. “
No other Indian top leaders ever donated their body to a medical college, but Basu set an example, by donating his body and its parts to further the cause of medicine and scientific research.
Photo: Jyoti Basu speaks to a CPI (M) mass rally of 150,000 in Hyderabad, India, in 2002. Teresa Albano/PW