January 18, 2010
By JIM YARDLEY, New York Times
NEW DELHI — Jyoti Basu, a powerful leftist leader who dominated politics in the state of West Bengal for more than two decades and nearly became India’s first Communist prime minister, died in Calcutta on Sunday. He was 95.
Mr. Basu’s stature in West Bengal was evident in a huge public outpouring of concern in recent days as his health steadily deteriorated. Anxious crowds gathered outside his Calcutta hospital, local newspapers carried front page updates on his condition and a litany of leading Indian politicians, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, made calls to him. He died of multiple organ failure, according to Indian news reports.
Mr. Basu was known as a savvy political survivor, skilled at building coalitions and forging consensus, whose biggest policy initiatives were sweeping land reforms in West Bengal. The initiatives distributed land to more than two million landless families and, in turn, established a leftist coalition known as the Left Front that dominated state politics for three decades until showing recent signs of weakening.
Mr. Singh praised Mr. Basu as a pragmatic, visionary politician whose death “marks the end of an era in the annals of Indian politics.” Citing his land initiatives as visionary, the prime minister also described Mr. Basu as “one of the most able administrators and politicians of independent India.”
Born July 8, 1914, in Calcutta, Mr. Basu was raised as a doctor’s son in an aristocratic family. He later studied law in London, where he embraced Marxism before returning to Calcutta in 1940. He then joined the Communist Party of India and began organizing railroad workers in the last years of the British raj.
After India’s independence in 1947, Mr. Basu was elected several times to the local assembly. When the Communist Party of India split in 1964, he was among the founders of the more radical Communist Party of India (Marxist). He became chief minister in 1977 as the leader of a Left Front coalition and held that position, the most powerful in the state, until 2000.
He nearly became India’s prime minister in 1996 as the head of a national coalition. But hard-liners in his own party rejected his selection, arguing that leading a coalition government would betray Marxist principles and would not allow him to carry out Marxist policies. Mr. Basu would later call this decision a “historic blunder.”
His land initiatives won national praise, but West Bengal’s industrial policies were criticized during his tenure. Today, the popularity of his CPI-Marxist party has suffered severely amid concerns about corruption and bad governance.
Hari Kumar contributed reporting.