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Last colossus of Bengal politics

I had known Jyoti Basu for more than 40 years. I met him first in 1967, when the first United Front government was constituted in West Bengal. Basu was the deputy chief minister, representing the CPI(M) in the coalition government headed by Ajoy Mukherjee, writes Pranab Mukherjee.

india Updated: Jan 18, 2010 01:09 IST
Pranab Mukherjee

I had known Jyoti Basu for more than 40 years. I met him first in 1967, when the first United Front government was constituted in West Bengal. Basu was the deputy chief minister, representing the CPI(M) in the coalition government headed by Ajoy Mukherjee. The coalition returned power in 1969 with Ajoy Mukherjee as chief minister and Basu as his deputy, but the latter also got the home ministry as CPI(M) had emerged the largest party in the coalition.

As home minister, Basu had a confrontation with his CM on some policy issues and also on some actions by the home ministry. The differences escalated and ultimately, the second UF government collapsed. During this period, the CM and his deputy exchanged some notes on issues in regard to the relationship between a Cabinet minister and his chief minister in a coalition government.

The notes were later reported in newspapers. Mukherjee’s contention was that, as chief minister, he had the right and the privilege to overview the functioning of any ministry and issue corrective directions if required.

However, Basu maintained that the constitutional position taken by Mukherjee was untenable in a coalition government. Because the chief minister is the product of political understanding amongst the political parties constituting the coalition, he or she cannot enjoy the same authority as the CM of a single-party government, without the approval of the entire coalition.

As I was associated with both UF governments as a representative of Bangla Congress, which was also a member of the coalition, I came in close contact with Basu. During the mid-term election of 1969, Basu suggested to Mukherjee that I be nominated to contest an assembly constituency so that I could be inducted into the state Cabinet later. However, that did not happen as my party entrusted me with other responsibilities. I was elected to Rajya Sabha in the same year.

Basu had a very long innings both in the legislature and in administration. He was elected to Bengal Legislative Assembly in 1946 and continued to be its member till 2001, except for a short period of 5 years (1972-77). Till date, his record as the longest-serving chief minister (1977-2000) is unbroken.

Basu was an excellent parliamentarian and he built his reputation as the opposition spokesman for nearly 20 years – from 1947 to 1967. He kept that reputation even after he became chief minister in 1977 -- as the chief spokesperson of the government and as the leader of the house.

As chief minister for 23 years, his unique contribution was to lead CPI(M) to victory in every election in the state -- from panchayats and municipalities to the assembly and the Lok Sabha. He turned West Bengal into an impregnable fort of CPI(M). His charismatic personality was the main factor that kept the Left Front together.

During his tenure as CM, Basu is credited with introducing successful land reforms. He decentralised power and authority, and strengthened the panchayati raj system. The process of industrialisation was initiated by him and could have achieved more success but for the dogmatic approach of his party.

During his lifetime, he became a legend. He was described as the great patriarch of the CPI(M). Because of his personality he could criticise his party in public and even described one as a “historic blunder”. At the same time, as a disciplined and committed party man, he followed every decision of the party. Perhaps, he was the last colossus, who dominated Bengal politics in Independent India.

The author is the finance minister of India.

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