The end of Jyoti Basu’s well-fought life truly marks the end of an era
The first Left Front Ministry in West Bengal led by Jyoti Basu was sworn in at 10-30 a.m. on June 21, 1977. Two United Front governments had earlier assumed power with him as Deputy Chief Minister, but those could not function for more than 22 months because of (in his words) “internal dissensions and conspiracies hatched against them by some reactionary political forces and vested interests.”
The journey to Writers’ Building had indeed been long.
Born in Kolkata (Calcutta) on July 8, 1914, Jyoti Basu was educated in St Xavier’s and Presidency College before going to England in 1935 to study law. “It was during our student life in London,” he recalled in his memoirs, “that some of us took a conscious decision that once back in India we would devote ourselves to the Communist Party.”
He qualified as a barrister and returned to India in 1940 at the age of 26. Although he enrolled as an advocate at the High Court in Calcutta, “Marxist literature and the contemporary happenings of the world,” he wrote later, “were fast pulling me into the mainstream of politics.” He became associated with the Communist Party of India in various capacities. Later, when the party split, Mr. Basu was a member of the founding nine-member Polit Bureau of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and was to be the longest-living of the CPI(M)’s “navaratna.”
During his tenure as Chief Minister, which lasted for more than 23 years (June 1977 to November 2000), the Left Front government travelled a long way. Its landmark achievements included the implementation of land reforms and the establishment of a democratic three-tier panchayati raj structure, and, later, new policies to encourage investment in industry.
Mr. Basu was the prime mover of perhaps the most important initiative in large-scale industry in West Bengal in recent decades, the Haldia petro-chemical complex. In 1996, his name was proposed by the United Front, the coalition of parties led by the Janata Dal, as a consensus candidate for the post of Prime Minister. The decision by his party to turn down the proposal was later characterised by him as a “historic blunder.”
In 2000, Mr. Basu, citing his age and declining health, took the unprecedented step of resigning from the post of Chief Minister, an act of moral self-abnegation on which he insisted despite intense pressure to continue.
He continued, of course, to be the wise counsellor, not just on matters related to his party but also those of government in his State. Senior leaders of the CPI(M) continued to visit him at Indira Bhavan, his residence in Kolkata’s Salt Lake, seeking his advice on issues concerning government or Party, sometimes both.
If Mr. Basu commanded the respect of leaders across the political spectrum, who seldom missed a chance to seek his counsel, he also had a special fondness for children, who were regular guests at his home on his birthdays. No matter how heavy his responsibilities or weighty the political tasks, they never failed to evoke a smile.
The 19th Congress of the CPI(M) held in Coimbatore in early 2008 acceded reluctantly to his desire to be relieved of his membership of the Polit Bureau, although he remained a special invitee to the body and stayed on as a member of the party’s Central Committee. He himself was unable to attend that Congress and watched the proceedings on television from Indira Bhavan.
He made it clear, in media interviews, that his stepping down from government or party posts did not at all mean retirement from politics; as a Communist, he would continue to do whatever his declining energy levels and health allowed him to do, even in his late 80s and 90s.
Jyoti Basu was a fighter till the last. It can truly and without exaggeration be said that the end of his life marks the end of an era. A legend in his lifetime, he remains one in death.