New Delhi: Jyoti Basu had many achievements to his name, such as being India’s longest-serving chief minister (overtaken by Pawan Kumar Chamling) and a beacon of India’s Communist movement. But in 1996, he came close to adding another feather to his cap — almost becoming India’s first Bengali and Marxist prime minister, eventually losing out to H.D. Deve Gowda when his Communist Party of India (Marxist) decided not to join the United Front government.
Basu ruled West Bengal for 23 uninterrupted years between 1977 and 2000, and was known for his realpolitik — at the height of the Vietnam War, he renamed the Calcutta street on which the American consulate stood after Communist icon Ho Chi Minh, and then went to Washington to seek investment.
On his 105th birth anniversary, ThePrint looks back at the life of this Indian political stalwart.
Becoming a Communist
Basu was born at 43/1 Harrison Road in Calcutta (now Mahatma Gandhi Road) on 8 July 1914, as the third child of upper-middle-class parents Nishikanta and Hemlata. Nishikanta was a doctor who served in Bardi village of Dhaka district, now in Bangladesh.
The young boy was initially named Jyotirindra, but when he was admitted to Loreto School, Dharmatala, in 1920, his father shortened the name to Jyoti. Three years later, he switched to St Xavier’s School, and upon completing his matriculation, enrolled to study English (Hons) at Hindu College, now known as Presidency University.
In 1935, the freshly-graduated Basu went to the United Kingdom, returning in 1940 after having studied at University College, London, and become a barrister at the Middle Temple.
During his time in London, Basu was introduced to politics through the Communist Party of Great Britain, becoming acquaintances with Harry Pollitt, Rajani Palme Dutt, Ben Bradley and other leaders. He also attended lectures of Harold Laski, a Marxist poet who later became chairman of British Labour Party, and involved himself in organising various activities of Indian students in the UK.
In 1937, he joined various Indian student unions in Britain, such as the India League led by V.K. Krishna Menon, and the Federation of Indian Students.
The turning point in his political life came in 1938, when he joined the London Majlis and became its first secretary. The main function of the Majlis was to organise meetings of Indian leaders visiting England with those of the Labour Party and other Socialists, and this brought Basu into contact with the likes of Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhas Chandra Bose and Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit.
During this time, Basu also organised a group to teach English to illiterate Indian sailors dwelling in the slums of London — his first experience of working with the poor and illiterate.
Leading light of the Indian Left
Having developed a firm belief in the Communist ideals, Basu returned to India in 1940 and joined the Communist Party of India, also becoming secretary of the Friends of the Soviet Union and Anti-Fascist Writers’ and Artists’ Association in Calcutta.
As the CPI had been declared ‘illegal’ after the Meerut Conspiracy case of 1929, Basu’s main task was to maintain links with leaders who had gone underground and provide them with shelter and subscriptions in secret meetings.
In 1944, Basu started working with trade and railways unions of Bengal. He was instrumental in establishing the Bengal Nagpur Railway Workers’ Union in the same year, and became its general secretary. Basu was elected to the central committee of the CPI in 1951.
In the 1952 elections in West Bengal, the CPI, the Forward Bloc, the Socialist Republican Party, and the Bolshevik Party of India (under the name of the United Socialist Organisation) formed a united anti-Congress front. Basu was also part of this front, representing the CPI and defeating the Congress’ Harendranath Roy Chowdhury from the Baranagar assembly seat. The CPI won 28 of the 71 seats it contested in the 238-member assembly, and Basu was unanimously chosen as its leader in the legislature. He retained the seat in 1957, and with the CPI’s numbers increasing to 46 plus five independents backed by the party, Basu became the leader of the opposition.
After the India-China War of 1962, differences arose in the CPI. Two years later, the party split, leading to the formation of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and Basu became one of the founding members of its politburo.
In 1967, two anti-Congress groups, led by the CPI(M) and the Bangla Congress-CPI, formed the government, with Ajoy Mukherjee as CM and Basu as his deputy and finance minister. But just four years later, Basu and Mukherjee faced each other in a unique contest in Baranagar, with Basu prevailing.
The next year, there were assembly elections again, which were won by the Congress amid allegations of rigging. Basu suffered his only electoral ‘defeat’ in these polls, as the CPI(M) boycotted the assembly.
As chief minister
In 1977, after the Emergency, the Left Front came to power in West Bengal, with Basu, who had switched to the Satgachia constituency, becoming CM.
His watch saw many big initiatives, such as land reforms, minimum wages for agricultural labourers, a three-tier panchayati system, dole for the unemployed and widows, and the establishment of a separate department for youth services, as per his obituary in Frontline magazine.
He retired from active politics in 2000, leaving the Left Front government in the hands of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, who ruled for 11 more years. Basu remained a member of the CPI(M) politburo till 2008, and a special invitee of the party’s central committee till his death.
Almost prime minister
In 1996, Basu was the consensus leader of the United Front after Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s short-lived 13-day government, but the CPI(M) decided not to participate in the government — a decision Basu later dubbed a “historic blunder”.
Though the party’s top leaders, including general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet, were in favour of Basu taking the top job, others like V.S. Achuthanandan, Prakash Karat, Sitaram Yechury and E.K. Nayanar opposed it, arguing that since the CPI(M) had only 32 MPs, it wouldn’t be a strong enough force.
However, former CBI director and Bengal DGP Arun Prosad Mukherjee wrote in his autobiography Unknown Facets of Rajiv Gandhi, Jyoti Basu, Indrajit Gupta that Gandhi had wanted Basu to become prime minister twice, in 1990 and 1991.
Basu married twice. His first wife Basanti passed away in 1942, just two years into their marriage. In 1948, he was remarried to Kamala, with whom he had a daughter who died soon after birth, and a son, Subhabrata, also known as Chandan.
Basu suffered multiple organ failure on 1 January 2010, and was admitted to AMRI Hospital, Salt Lake. He died on 17 January 2010.
As per his wishes, his body and eyes were handed over to SSKM Hospital, Kolkata, for research.