Whenever the discussion about “Indian Political Left”, lights up, one name always comes up without an iota of doubt – Jyoti Basu, unarguably, the light of the Communist Movement in India. 

Jyoti Basu, the respected Bhadralok Bengali, the staunch Communist who never compromised on his democratic ideals, one of the founders of CPI(M), one who wore Marxism in his sleeve, he was the beacon of hope for Indian communism, and almost became the Prime Minister, one who was the longest-serving chief minister in India before Pawan Kumar Chamling of Sikkim broke his record. He led Bengal for more than two decades, through the Indian Freedom Movement, Bengal Famine, and World War II.

Can you imagine someone relinquishing Prime Ministership in the Indian political system because he was plagued by opportunism? He declined the same in 1996, due to his party principles. This leaves an unparalleled legacy in these days of unprincipled politics and defections. But Jyoti Basu didn’t let anything take over his ideals, he was the giant Marxist who served as the CM of West Bengal for 23 years. He changed the political dynamics of Bengal forever. 

He was a staunch communist, a leader respected beyond his party lines, we know how rare that is, he had unbound love for his party, making him one of the greatest statesmen and an unstoppable force. Jyoti Basu was the face behind the world’s longest ever democratically elected communist regime.

Basu was born in 1914 in Calcutta and enjoyed an upper-middle-class childhood. He began his studies in Calcutta, at St. Xavier’s School and Presidency College, before moving to London in 1935 to complete his law education. Basu’s time in England also marked the beginning of his political education, as he came under the influence of the political theorist Harold Laski. 

On his return to Calcutta in 1940, he became a worker for the Communist Party of India (CPI) and also participated in the organization of rail workers. Basu was elected to the Bengal Legislative Assembly when India became independent from British rule in 1947. 

When the CPI split into 2 factions in 1964, Jyoti Basu became one of the founders of the more radical CPI(M). He served as the leading member of a government charged with repairing a violent, dispute-ridden state. Basu, in 1977, started serving as the head of the Left Front Coalition and began his long tenure as the chief minister of West Bengal. He would go on to become the longest-serving chief minister in the country’s history at that time. The Indian Freedom Movement, the Bengal Famine, and the second World War were the main catalysts for his political start. 

Another development leading to his political career was when Basu was deeply impacted by the role of Subhas Chandra Bose in the Indian freedom struggle and Bengal was already the epicenter of freedom. In the 1930s, socialism was rising in England, and Basu came in touch with British communists and that is when he went on the path of left-wing politics.

One strange incident which we should recall describing how unique a leader Jyoti Basu was as compared to others in the league is when he named a street on which the US consulate in Kolkata was present after a Vietnamese communist but then he also went to the US for investments when he needed them. 

He was a communist and was against the idea of the United States spreading capitalism. Jyoti Basu and the communists shook up the wholly unequal distribution of power in traditional West Bengal, organizing workers and peasants, and giving them agency. Basu’s electoral successes were built upon his career as a trade union leader. 

During the tenure of his chief ministership, his biggest achievement was to implement land reforms in Bengal. He gave permanent tenure to the sharecroppers, and also laid the grounds for the investment in crop husbandry, irrigation, etc., which led to a sudden spurt in Bengal’s agricultural productivity and production. 

Leading the communist movement and the Left Front government, Basu led with secularism and kept the communal forces at bay. West Bengal was spared from the 1984 anti-Sikh violence and the Hindu–Muslim riots that engulfed all of India in the years preceding the demolition of the Babri Masjid. 

Had he been here in the era of rising communalism at the helm of affairs, he would have stood as the odd one out- an indomitable spirit fiercely committed to the secular values enshrined in the constitution. This represented his true leadership and his political commitment to secularism.

Another significant achievement that changed the dynamics of Bengal was the political decentralization in West Bengal. His government focused on providing political and economic powers to the local governments in towns and villages. 

During his tenure, the poverty rate declined from a shocking 72% to 27%. Many foreign leaders like Mandela were influenced by Jyoti Basu and often visited Bengal. Thus, Calcutta became Mecca for communism. 

However, with the many achievements accredited to his name, there were some shortcomings too and the communist government was criticized on some fronts. The communist rule did not end the class inequality entirely, the communist rule led to a syndicate rule, public debts surged and sluggish industrial growth was seen. The Left Front in Bengal was accused of using the institutions of decentralization of political and economic power as an elaborate mechanism of partisan patronage. 

He had been praised for running an honest and effective government throughout the country. But then, Basu’s health started to decline in the late 90s and Buddhdev Bhattacharya took over the charge of affairs. The Communist government was losing its sheen, the Nandigram violence was just the tip of the iceberg. 

A question still remains: had Basu still been there, would the Communist government have lost its track and receive the electoral drubbing and near wipeout? Basu had been winning elections since 1952. He had also been a lifetime member of Politburo. The stalwart Marxist nearly became the Prime Minister as mentioned earlier, the only hindrance that came in his way was the CPI refusing someone from party ranks heading a multi-party government which could not implement Marxist policies. 

Jyoti Basu was slowly retrieving from public life as health was declining, and in 2010, the legendary left leader breathed his last. This led to a massive outpouring of grief. Entire grief-stricken Calcutta came on streets to pay homage to the mass leader, the force of all that was good in their state. 

The devoted worker of CPI-M received a glowing eulogy from his party, and no one could’ve said it better – “There could be no other Jyoti Basu”. 

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