In Jyoti Basu’s demise at the age of 95, the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) has lost a veteran who was not only a leader with phenomenal mass appeal but also a sophisticated master of coalition politics and a leading pragmatist in his party.
Basu was a diplomat, bureaucrat and politician rolled into one. It was not without reason that he could address Indira Gandhi by her first name all his life, compel Mamata Banerjee to wish him on his birthday year after year and move huge crowds every time he raised his folded hands and said: “I am too old to attend rallies. We will probably never meet again”.
What will Basu’s absence mean to the party? Seemingly, little. Basu had, after all, opted for retirement from active politics almost immediately after he left Writers’ Buildings as chief minister and swore not to contest elections. But his party would not let go of a maverick. They turned down his appeals to be relieved from the Politburo. Always a disciplined party member, Basu kept track of day-to-day developments even behind the walls of his Indira Bhawan residence at Salt Lake in eastern Kolkata. Till last year he attended meetings of the state secretariat whenever his health permitted but could no longer travel beyond Kolkata.
It was hardly surprising that Basu was the first choice as prime minister of the United Front of regional parties when it was set to form the government in 1996. The CPI(M)’s central leadership, however stopped him from becoming PM.
Faced with repeated debacles in elections in recent times, and control over civic bodies and panchayats slipping through their fingers, neither the party’s Bengal leaders nor general secretary Prakash Karat could afford to ignore Basu. After all, when their allegations about the Trinamool having links with the Maoists was ignored by voters, just a one-liner from Basu would make it to the headlines.
That leader is no more, and the CPI(M) will be poorer for his demise.