Jyoti Basu strode the national stage like a colossus for decades even when he did not occupy a political post in New Delhi. He was one of the few Chief Ministers who was admired and respected both inside and outside his own State for his contribution to the polity.
Indeed, Jyoti Basu came close to reaching the top executive post as Prime Minister in the summer of 1996. It was a period when the socialists and the Left parties had come together under the banner of United Front to form a government at the Centre.
The country was going through a period of transition amid the rapid growth of right-wing political forces and a changing economic landscape ushered in by the liberalisation drive of the 1990s. The Lok Sabha elections of 1996 threw up a hung House.
With former Prime Minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh refusing to take the top job once again, the United Front leaders turned to the seasoned octogenarian, requesting him to head the government at the Centre. With his rich administrative experience as the Chief Minister of West Bengal who displayed political sagacity in running a successful coalition government for over two decades, Jyoti Basu was the natural choice. The offer was turned down by the party, and as a disciplined party man, Jyoti Basu accepted the decision without any fuss. It was much later that he famously characterised the collective decision as a “historic blunder.”
But he made it clear that he accepted the majority opinion within his party’s top decision-making body. He continued to soldier on as Chief Minister of West Bengal for four more years.
Jyoti Basu may have spent a life politically rooted in West Bengal, but he acquired the status of a national leader as people everywhere acknowledged his contributions to public life. He was one Left leader who became a household name across the country.