The time: April and May, 1996. Jyoti Basu, then a few months short of his 82nd birthday, came within a whisker of becoming Prime Minister after Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s first term as premier had ended after 13 days.
It became obvious that the United Front (UF), a grouping of various regional parties, would form the next government with outside support from the Congress.
The problem was it didn’t have an obvious leader. The Left Front, with 51 seats, was the biggest component of the UF and the Janata Dal, with 44 seats, the second largest. The Tamil Maanila Congress (20 seats), Samajwadi Party and DMK (17 seats each) and Telugu Desam Party (16 seats) were the other large constituents.
If Lalu Prasad (then part of the Janata Dal) thought it was time for India to get its first Yadav prime minister (himself), his detractors were eager to project Mulayam Singh, Chandrababu Naidu or Biju Patnaik for the position.
UF leaders were spoilt for choice but could not rise above regional interests. Amid this confusion, Basu emerged as the unanimous candidate because his image was above controversy.
The CPI decided to join the government and advised the CPI(M) to follow suit.
But hardliners in the CPI(M) Politburo, led by Prakash Karat, would have none of it. Their logic: the party should not lead or be part of any government at the Centre that it was not in a position to dominate.
The fractured verdict and the compulsion of seeking outside support from the Congress would ensure that the CPI(M) would not be in a position to implement its agenda, they argued.
The hardliners won the day — reportedly by only one vote.
“It was a historic blunder,” Basu lamented later.
Karat, as party general secretary after Surjeet, has always said the episode is a “closed chapter”.
The Marxists, thus, lost a chance to lead the country.