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Saurabh Das/AP.
Marxist patriarch Jyoti Basu retired on Nov. 6 after 24 years in power.

'He Made Communism Look Respectable'
A profile of the Indian political legend Jyoti Basu

November 7, 2000
Web posted at 4:30 p.m. Hong Kong time, 4:30 a.m. EDT

'The Rest of the Country Can Learn From Us'
Web-only interview with retired West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu

Jyoti Basu, the 86-year-old just retired communist Chief Minister of West Bengal State, was India's longest-serving elected leader. Unlike communist heads in other countries, he stepped down from office willingly and at the height of his popularity, after 24 years in power. Since his announcement in Calcutta last month, hundreds of common people have been flocking to his office and home to pay him homage.

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As head of India's once most volatile state, Basu's government can boast of several achievements. In particular, his government is credited with restoring political stability to West Bengal after it was wracked by a Maoist insurgency known as the Naxalite movement, and experienced years of brutal police repression in the 1970s. It made land reforms -- a distant dream for most Indian farmers -- a reality with more than one million sharecroppers now the proud owners of land taken from rich farmers or government holdings. The government also sharply reduced the level of poverty from 52% of the population in 1978, to 26% today, and strengthened the democratic rights of ordinary people by paying great attention to the self-governing structures at village and local levels. Furthermore, the government improved West Bengal's agricultural and fishery production.

But there were also many failures during Basu's reign: his government was never able to control the militant trade unions, rejuvenate industry, or encourage foreign investment. He failed totally to take advantage of West Bengal's scientific and technical manpower to set up IT industries on the scale of India's southern states, Karnataka or Andhra Pradesh. Hundreds of memorandums of understanding were signed with foreign investors, but few of the plans were ever implemented, largely because of opposition from militant trades unions. Basu carried his fight with them to his last cabinet meeting, where his proposal to hand over Calcutta's government-owned Great Eastern Hotel to Accor Asia Pacific, an arm of the Paris-based Accor group, was finally accepted. Accor plans to turn the hotel into an upmarket heritage site, and drastically reduce its work force. The unions intend to fight the transition through to the end.

Often described as a Fabian Socialist rather than an orthodox communist, Basu worked by consensus, successfully managing coalitions, and showed a healthy respect for the viewpoints of others. He was not a tyrant or authoritarian despot, but he was firm in implementing decisions. "He has made Communism look respectable," says Sabyasachi Basu Roy Choudhuri, a leading Calcutta-based political analyst. Ashis Chakrabarty, editor of the Indian Express, who has closely monitored Basu's career, adds: "Basu has looked less and less a communist and more and more a pragmatist, a social democrat. But his success indicates social democracy has a future that communism does not have anymore."

His success could have been greater, though. When the Central Committee of his party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) -- CPI(M) -- voted against a proposal in 1996 to allow Basu to lead a left-of-center national coalition government in Delhi on grounds that the communists were not strong enough to influence key decisions in it, an angry Basu, deprived of his first and only chance to be Prime Minister of India, described it as an "historic blunder." Basu accepted the decision of the majority, but only last month, he finally got his party to formally accept the "blunder," opening the path now for the CPI(M) to join and even lead a federal government. (Basu told a journalist in his last press conference: "Give me the medicines that will make me totally fit and I don't mind leading my country.") "But they will never get another chance, because they will not produce a personality like Jyoti Basu," says Siddhartha Shankar Ray, former Congress Party Chief Minister of West Bengal and Basu's most formidable opponent in the I970s.

Three coalitions, including two in which Basu was Deputy Chief Minister, failed in West Bengal before he turned the present one into a success. "One reason for such a stable coalition is the clear electoral strength of the CPI(M)," says Basu's biographer, Surabhi Banerjee. "It is too far ahead of the other parties, it is not a coalition of equals. The other reason for the smaller allies holding together is Basu's charisma and the perception that he is fair to the smallest constituent." Banerjee says if Basu had become Prime Minister in I996, he would have held the coalition together in Delhi and prevented the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party from coming to power.

Basu has said he will remain active as a politburo member of the CPI(M). "He can now give more time for national politics," says Sitaram Yechury, a fellow politburo member. "We will try to use his stature to rebuild the third front against the BJP and the Congress."

Not making it to the very top is something Basu has come to terms with, according to his family. "He seems so relaxed now, he is playing with his grandchildren all the time, I doubt he will now take the strain of active politics," says his businessman son Chandan. Basu, it seems, will always be remembered as the brilliant politician who had a good innings, but who failed to fulfil his strongest ambition.

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