Posted by: John Elliott | January 18, 2010

Jyoti Basu – the Communist prime minister that India needed but never had

India desperately needs charismatic and respected political leaders who can lead coherent policy-based opposition to the Congress Party and its coalition governments. Only two men have qualified for this statesman role in recent years. One is Jyoti Basu of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), who died yesterday aged 95. The other is Atal Bihari Vajpayee, 85, a former prime minister and leader of the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), who is in ill health and is no longer politically active.


Both Vajpayee and Basu (left) could have ranked alongside earlier leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, but they never managed to achieve the same stature because they were held back by their parties’ limitations.
Vajpayee provided the Hindu-nationalist BJP with an acceptable friendly face, fudging and slowing down its harsher policies and leading a coalition government from 1998 to 2004.

But, though he undoubtedly had statesmen status and is sorely missed by the now-directionless BJP, his party’s lack of nationwide-acceptability limited his role. (His colleague at the top of the BJP,  Lal Krishna Advani, 82, never gained the same level of respect as a statesman and is now sidelined).
Basu was similarly hemmed in by the CPI(M) which threw away an historic opportunity to grow and lead the country when it refused in 1996 to allow him to become prime minister of a coalition government that was then being formed. (The job went to two far less significant politicians, each for a year – Deve Gowda from Karnataka and then Inder Kumar Gujral from Punjab). That confined Basu to his base in West Bengal, where he was chief minister for 23 years till he retired in 2000, remaining active in party politics till recently.
The political development of India’s Left, and indeed of the country’s whole political landscape, could have been different if the CPI(M) polit bureau had allowed Basu to take the job. Basu later described it as a “historic blunder” because the opportunity would not be repeated, adding “We thought that even if we last for (just) one year in that coalition, with myself as prime minister and our party joining it, then people would understand……what we are all about”.

 Many people might think that India was lucky to be spared learning what the CPI(M) was “all about”, but the country needs a coherent national Leftist party or grouping and does not currently have one. The Congress is proud of parading what it regards as its socialist roots, but the party haphazardly pushes economic liberalisation and other policies that are often geared more to pleasing vested interests and filling the politicians’ pockets than following a constructive socialist agenda.
As Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, who knew Basu well, said yesterday, making him prime minister would have helped that to integrate the CPI(M) with India’s national politics. He added that Basu would have been a “good leader” – a point made by many commentators in the last couple of days. Other friends who knew him talk of a charming companion with a dry sense of humour, a love of whisky – and of PG Wodehouse.
The popular image of the CPI(M) led-Left at the time was of a Luddite party that blocked economic reforms and foreign investment, and encouraged labour strife. But Basu was leading West Bengal into a new phase of co-operation with capitalism and foreign investment, and curbing militant trade unionism. That is the approach he would have brought to Delhi – where the Left continues to oppose economic reforms because it is not in power. (Elsewhere its only power base is in Kerala where it plays a largely negative role in state politics).
While he was West Bengal’s chief minister, Basu introduced important reforms to help the poor, especially land reform and the development of panchayats (local village councils). That helped the CPI(M) and its allies to stay in power – buttressed by extensive ballot-rigging and repressive and often violent power tactics that have become evident over the years – especially in crises over use of agricultural land for industry and in last year’s general election campaign.
The Left’s failure to govern effectively in recent years has also allowed a Maoist-inspired Naxalite rebellion, which covers over a third of India’s administrative districts, to regain a hold over parts of West Bengal where it began as a peasant revolt 40 years ago. 
Basu’s gradual withdrawal from politics in the past few years has left a gap at the top of the CPI(M) that his successor, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, has proved himself unable to fill. The Left is rapidly losing support and will find it hard to hold onto power in state assembly elections next year – especially because, for the first time for decades, it will not have Basu to lean on.
Basu’s legacy – dictated by his party and his successors – is sadly therefore one of lost opportunities: the prime minister who never was; the party leader who was not able to build a national base; and a West Bengal government whose failings have opened the way for a violent rebellion. But he will still be remembered as one of India’s great politicians.


  1. Two readers have drawn attention to other comments on Jyoti Basu’s life, both readers suggesting I was too complimentary – despite my negative ending:

    One comment is “Mr Basu’s Bengal” by Soutik Biswas on the BBC website –

    The other is more controversial – “Destroyer of West Bengal” by Kanchan Gupta on

    Itwould be good to have comments on these views……..

  2. John

    India desperately needs leaders who run things based on merit and not tenure, which is how things are done here.

    As far as the goal of socialist policies. It is simply not tenable to aim to provide some kind of social safety net to over a billion people. It is not a remotely achievable goal, it is a pipe dream.

    That goal will either fail or does desirable things very very badly, not to mention the level of corruption big and heavy handed government fosters.

    The country desperately needs to move to the right, and allow business to create employment and wealth, once and whilst wealth is being created begin implementing social policies which capture the impoverished within the net and do it well.

    We don’t need an enunciation of left policies, my god we have spent the last 60 plus years doing just that and it put the cart before the horse.

    If anything this country needs quite the opposite, it needs an enunciation of capitalism, because until now it has bumbled along in spite of itself with no real clear path having been defined. How to foster the growth of the private sector and leverage it to create ever greater levels of employment and use the higher taxation revenue to deliver better public services.

    The CPI spokespeople, can be very eloquent at times, and really some of them even come across as what could be described as brilliant, but they cling to notions that have failed, ideology and dogma, which to an outsider such as myself seems largely because they are from a generation that finds it impossible to change.

    And West Bengal has suffered for it. Thank god they never had the chance to run the country and when they had a powerful say, the country was mired in gridlock.

    We have never needed still more geriatric heart patients making key decisions for a country where 500 million people are aged below thirty, simply because the notion of age is venerated which results in political structure being define by age rather than merit.

    We need their advice and wisdom, which I would term as being guidance, but having them decide key issues, we would do better without. These type of people are locked into a way of thought, and what that means is they cannot accept philosophical changes, even when a lot of what they say might have made sense fifty years ago, but has been largely discredited.

    The goal of socialism is not achievable in India. In Cuba perhaps, but not in India.

  3. Interesting counterpoint to this in Mint – the hindustan times + wall street journal paper. They’re usually firmly capitalist (but haven’t shown the love for the BJP that the times of india group for example has) .. but still, this was an interesting counterpoint, citing a lot of figures to show that the cpi-m rule in calcutta wasn’t really a great leap forward for that state.

    The article is titled “Basu Raj – West Bengal’s historic blunder”.

    (I personally think the poor man was trying to do the best faced with ideology AND hubris – the sort prakash karat had in spades when he floated the third front..)

  4. John, The prime minister who never was a very apt summary of the Man Jyoti Basu. I had the opportunity to deal with him during the course of my professional career. He was focused, he was willing to change from ideology to practicality and was able to control the cadre to implement what was right.

    I remember once him asking me to give employment to few party workers, I refused and explained to him the rationale behind my decision. all i said to him was that i do not create jobs, but create infrastructure that creates jobs. there was a silence, but I had won his confidence.

    I used to have regular meetings with him. he was more up to speed on the progress than I was at times. a stickler for time keeping, full of humbleness and humility. name one CM who would come out to say sorry, if he was running late.

    It is a tragedy that India missed an ideal PM, who would stay away from fat cat style of functioning, which both UPA 1 and UPA 2 have been. Full of corrupt politicians, dynastic rule, darbaris (loyalists). we already have nouveau filthy rich politicians controlling parts of the country. had he been the PM, there would be the so called inclusive growth of, for and by the Aam Admi, which today receives only lip sympathy.

    I wish he could control the parting of the ways in 2008 over nuclear deal to at least prevent the continuing disaster allowing UPA2 the the free run they do not deserve. That was the 2nd historical blunder.

  5. Appreciate the opinion expressed.

    Sad to say, though the percentage of academically qualified and educated people in the country is much higher than many developing and developed countries, very few people among the young (or the not so young) have an understanding of the scientific basis of the Marxist and Leftist ideals and political theories!

    Politics receives much cursive response from all and sundry in this country. But few can discriminate based on understanding of the historical, social and economical perspectives that should be the lodestone for manifestos of the ruling party or political heads.

    Hence people like Jyoti Basu remain without the halo that still adorns the “family based political legacy bestowed” !!!

  6. Agree with Paul – interesting perspective. But, I think a hall mark of great leaders is also that they make things happen. Also – I’m not sure how West Bengal has fared all these years – compared to other states (I don’t want to make this a socialist vs communist debate).

  7. A very interesting perspective.

    One comment and one question:

    The comment. Aside from last year’s Lok Sabha elections, the Left parties have actually been showing steady progress in terms of parliamentary representation – and provided the backbone to most of Singh’s first terms social reforms – especially support for the rural poor. I wonder whether they would have been able to have shown such progress if Basu had fronted what would inevitably have been a flaky and unstable coalition in 1996.

    The question. You dismiss the role of the CPM in Kerala as largely negative. Since this is one of your rare mentions of that state, perhaps you could elaborate?

    thanks Paul – very briefly, the Left in Kerala has been in such a constant battle with Congress that neither party has been able to push forward with the development of this potentially very rich state – je

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