Jyoti Basu was the last of the founder-members of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
He was part of the so-called “gang of nine” senior leaders who walked out of the undivided Communist Party of India (CPI) to form the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in 1964.
Among the nine, who made up the CPI(M)’s first politburo, M. Basavapunnaiah, B.T. Randive and P. Ramamurthi were ideologues. Pramod Dasgupta was known for his organisational skills and Harkishen Singh
Surjeet for his political acumen. E.M.S. Namboodiripad, Basu and A.K. Gopalan were the mass leaders.
Any other party would have elected Namboodiripad, Basu or Gopalan its chief. But in the tradition of communist parties across the world, another leader, P. Sundarayya, became CPI(M)’s first general secretary.
If Basu, always a pragmatist, was disappointed, he didn’t show it. But over the next four decades, the Oxford-educated Basu, who was also a barrister to boot, emerged as India’s tallest communist leader and a much respected elder statesman, whose counsel was sought by friend and foe alike.
Little wonder he became his party’s chief trouble-shooter. Basu, a dour and no-nonsense political leader, was known to be charming in his personal relationships. He counted former prime ministers Indira Gandhi and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, both sworn political enemies, as his personal friends.
Even Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee, arguably the Left’s Enemy No. 1, is an ardent admirer..
Despite his larger-than-life image and his vice-like grip over West Bengal, Basu could never really establish his writ over his party nationally.
This became evident in 1996 when the CPI(M) politburo vetoed, reportedly by one vote, his chances of becoming the country’s first communist prime minister.
Later, Basu called it a “historic blunder”, but never explained what he meant or who he thought had committed that blunder.
His record as the country’s longest serving chief minister is patchy. He presided over a state that became, in his own words, “an industrial desert”.
He did nothing to stop his party commissars from turning the state’s bureaucracy, its police force and its many centres of higher education into instruments of political patronage.
Then, there were allegations that his son had built a business empire on the basis of his clout. Nothing, however, was ever proved.
But the first half of his reign also brought unprecedented prosperity to rural Bengal courtesy a programme to faithfully implement land reforms that made tillers the owners of the land they farmed.
The benefits of that programme, codenamed Operation Barga – Basu’s crowning glory – are now wearing thin. The next logical step – planned industrialization – will remain his biggest failure.
Retired bureaucrats say Basu was an able administrator who understood the need of the hour. His critics feel he used his leadership qualities to maintain the status quo.
The truth probably lies somewhere in between.