Bye, Bye to Basu

Why is the most densely populated state in India, which also suffered the greatest famine in India’s history in 1943, now the third largest economy in the country with a very rapid growth rate, a power infrastructure that is the best in the country, soaring agricultural yields and a crime rate that is half the national average?

By Jonathan Power (Power’s World)

Published: Sat 30 Jan 2010, 10:14 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 8:42 AM

It is mainly down to its governing communist-led front that is the world’s longest running democratically elected government, since 1977. Although in next year’s state elections it is likely to be ousted, partly out of the electorate’s boredom with it and partly because of its corruption.

No one epitomised communist rule more than its long time former leader, Jyoti Basu, who died last week at the age of 96. Television and the newspapers were full of not much else for five days. The crowds at his funeral filled the centre of the city. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, despite having been in Kolkata the week before to say goodbye, and Sonia Gandhi, the head of the Congress Party were in attendance.

Not only was Basu in power for decades he nearly became prime minister in 1996 and would have been if his communist party had not been so factionalised and couldn’t be relied on to support him in parliament.

But at home he towered over everybody else. Although he had to face splits aplenty on his home ground he knew how to get things done with a firm but non-antagonistic hand. He failed on some key issues but overall his rule was a triumph. No one changed the face of communism more than Basu did, leading the party to give up its line on ‘armed struggle” and accept parliamentary democracy.

Basu’s first government inherited a situation where in the rural areas the so-called “Naxalites’ were leading an armed struggle to re order land holdings. Landlords were often decapitated and a harsh rule enforced. The newly installed ruling communists were swift to deploy their own armed cadres to defeat the Naxalites. (The same thing is happening today with the Maoists who, over the last ten years, have played on the shortfalls of recent development in the rural areas).

The new government pushed through a democratic land reform that totally changed the face of West Bengal. Landlords were generously compensated and unlike a number of failed land reforms elsewhere the government managed to do the follow up work of settling peasants on their own land and bringing in agricultural advice. Schools and health clinics were introduced into every village. On a visit to one rural area I was amazed to find peasants with sewerage systems, television and electric fans. It was also a bit mind boggling to see lonely villages with the hammer sickle on a red background fluttering from many of the houses.

Meanwhile the urban industrial areas atrophied. The heavy hand of state control augmented by out of control unions that would strike at the drop of a hat made for stagnation. It is to Basu’s credit that he took these forces head on. In 1985 he pushed through the new economic agenda for the party.

Inspired by Deng Xiao Ping’s capitalist reforms in China he created state and private sector partnerships. In fact Basu was ahead of practices in the rest of India where in the same year Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi took the first steps to open the country to the free market, multinationals and the latest imported technology. After economic liberalisation was introduced into India in 1991, Basu was among the first to create a new industrial policy.

But the party itself was often his main antagonist and over time the gap between him and his party widened. He could not overcome the backward, primitive attitude of his party in education that patronised mediocrity, destroying standards of excellence. The teachers’ union called the shots. Learning in English was regarded as elitism (although Basu sent his own children to upper crust English speaking schools).

During Basu’s tenure some of the best educated Bengalis left Kolkata for pastures elsewhere. Not until he retired in 2000 was his successor, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, able to start to make the deep transformation that West Bengal and Kolkata desperately needed in order to succeed in the modern age- and partly succeeded it has even as communist rule shows up the serious defects that will probably push it into the political wilderness next year.

Jonathan Power is a veteran commentator on foreign affairs. For comments, write to

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