End of a Long March

Jyoti Basu, India’s best-known face of communism is dead. He will always be remembered for nurturing Left-based politics in the state of West Bengal and ruling it for more than two decades. He was the last national face of communism in a country that shifted from socialism to capitalism sometime ago.

Though Basu’s power base and constituency lay deep within India’s east, his shadow of influence overwhelmed governments in New Delhi. Skilled at building coalitions and forging consensus, however unreal they may be, Basu’s political initiatives were indispensable. His distinctions as a barrister trained in Britain, one who opted to jump on the bandwagon of Communist Party when it was illegal in India, and excelling as a trade unionist-cum-politician are legendary.

Basu’s passion for the welfare of the poor in his state has to be acknowledged. His clear-sightedness and decisiveness in governance allowed him to sail through as the longest serving chief minister of West Bengal. His legacy is land reforms under which more than two million peasant families benefitted. That helped him consolidate his grip on state politics. He was a rare mix of Marxist and democrat, whose era witnessed democratisation of the traditional panchayati institutions, communal harmony and political stability.

Yet, he had his own share of regrets. It was his own party that obstructed his becoming prime minister in 1996, as hard-liners argued that leading a coalition government would betray Marxist ideals. A humble Basu obliged, only later to call his decision a ‘historic blunder’.

What made Basu a people’s man was his outstanding ability to admit deficiencies. Down to earth, as he was, Basu believed that his 23 years as chief executive of a state should have achieved more in terms of development and social mobility. A marked decline in industrialisation, coupled with widespread violent agitations, apparently hindered West Bengal’s economic growth. Politicising bureaucracy and doing away with English language at the primary level of education were some of his myopic decisions, which cost him dearly at the twilight of his otherwise sterling career. The statesman of the past century, however, towered over his human and decision-making weaknesses. His style of politics with a passion is what mattered at the end of the day. He will live on as an undisputed father figure in national politics, irrespective of the fact the he prided in two identities: a diehard communist and a Bengali bhadralok. Kolkata and Delhi will miss a savvy political survivor in his death.

India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was correct in calling him ‘one of the most able administrators and politicians of independent India’. Truly, his death marks the end an era and culmination of a long march from the shadows of an industrious political worker to an enlightened statesman.

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