Jyoti Basu was a stumbling specialist of the half-finished sentence, a sometimes terrible public speaker who in his heyday attracted audiences of a million and more. He was awkward socially and fiercely private, a man given to slipping quietly away from the poverty of West Bengal for a month to imbibe London culture and occasionally a small brandy at the India Club.
He was never one of the poor millions who adored him. He was not really even a proper communist. But he was a revolutionary, and it is a measure of his impact on the lives of millions of landless West Bengal peasants that thousands thronged outside the Calcutta hospital where he lay dying to pay homage. He had seized land from the rich and turned many of the masses into subsistence farmers, and for this he was the unrivalled hero of leftist politics.
Not that his revolution ended poverty in West Bengal and its capital, Calcutta. Indeed, it arguably entrenched it. Business talent and big money fled, and Calcutta became an international icon for a particularly virulent kind of poverty that persists today amid familiar left-wing infighting.
Basu, invariably dressed in crisp white cotton, was rarely photographed wearing a smile. He came across as stern and distant, and the line between public and private life was strictly observed. His first wife died within 16 months of their marriage, and the second produced a son.
Basu’s politics and powerbase remained rooted in West Bengal, but he did have one chance at leaping out of this provincially feverish world in the mid-1990s to become India’s Prime Minister as head of a coalition government. The coalition might, had it succeeded, have stalled the rise of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, a party despised by most Muslims and blamed for much communal tension. But his party blocked him, effectively arguing that he would have to compromise Marxist ideals to accommodate so many shades of political opinion. He was furious and disappointed, and later described it as a blunder. He returned quietly to state politics while using his heightened prestige to become kingmaker of the rulers of Delhi. He influence was decisive in forming an alliance in 2004 between left-wingers and the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of Basu’s tenure was his intolerance and abhorrence of communalism. Calcutta and West Bengal rarely followed the rest of the country into outbreaks of religious rioting. Had Basu been a different person he could have set Bengal ablaze for short-term political gain, as other politicians routinely did elsewhere. Not that he was a benevolent ruler; the state apparatus of West Bengal had its ruthless and dictatorial side and its nightmarish bureaucracy.
His instinctive communal tolerance stemmed from a liberal upbringing in what is now Bangladesh as the son of a prosperous doctor, who sent him to the best schools and later at Presidency College, Calcutta, from which he graduated with honours in English. In 1935 he sailed to London to study law at Middle Temple.
His father was horrified when his son declared that he intended to pursue politics when he returned home, and, to boot, that he was now a communist. He had been inspired, in part, by the communist philosopher and writer Rajani Palme Dutt, and had dabbled in the Communist Party of Great Britain. After returning to Calcutta in 1940 he enrolled as a barrister at the Calcutta High Court but never practised.
Instead he joined the trade union movement and organised railway workers in Bengal and Assam. He became secretary of Friends of the Soviet Union and the Anti-Fascist Writers’ Association, and was in charge of maintaining contact with underground party workers. He was now, by any measure, a fully paid-up left-wing agitator.
His loathing of communalism was first manifest in 1946-47, when he played a crucial calming role as strikes and Hindu-
Muslim bloodletting threatened to engulf the state. He also ensured there was no anti-Sikh rioting in West Bengal after the assassination of Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister, in 1984 by her Sikh bodyguards.
In 1964 the communist movement in India split between ideological camps that variously supported India or China over the Sino-Indian war of 1962. Basu sided with the pro-China camp and became a founder and leader of the new Communist Party (Marxist) in West Bengal. Of the nine founding members of the politburo, Basu was the last survivor.
The party gained ground quickly but was trounced in state elections in 1972, which the Congress Party probably rigged, but won decisively in 1977 — the start of Basu’s 23 unbroken years of power, the longest stint as chief minister in Indian political history. He immediately confronted feudalism, spread land and wealth among the peasantry, and was from that moment the invincible man of the poor.
The stifling state mechanisms that he established reinforced his power, ensuring that big business stayed away and which can still make entrepreneurs think twice about setting up in West Bengal. He made one blunder that he later admitted to: early in his chief ministership he banned the teaching of English in primary schools, sowing the seeds for greater isolation from the rest of India and hindering his later attempts to attract US investors.
Basu remained politically active until he retired in 2000 because of ill health, but as India’s leading elder statesman he never stopped receiving high-powered visitors at his home. His politics remained as they had always been, Marxist in name but Fabian in nature and, after the introduction of economic liberalism in India in the 1980s, latterly capitalist in fact.
Basu’s wife died in 2003. He is survived by his son.