Published : Nov 11, 2000 00:00 IST

After leading the State for 23 years, Jyoti Basu steps down from the post of West Bengal Chief Minister.

TWENTY-THREE years after taking power as the elected Marxist head of government in West Bengal, Jyoti Basu, the architect of the world's longest-serving coalition government of Left parties, relinquished office on October 28. He was succeeded by Buddhade b Bhattacharya, the Deputy Chief Minister. Bhattacharya was sworn in Chief Minister on November 6.

Announcing his retirement at Writers' Buildings, which houses the State Secretariat, Basu, a Polit Bureau member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said the party had cleared his long-pending request for permission to lay down office on health gr ounds. "It has been a good innings. Though I shall not remain Chief Minister, I will be very much in the CPI(M). The retirement issue has been pending with the party for a year. I am happy they have finally realised that I am not keeping good health," a relaxed Basu told newspersons in his office at the State Secretariat.

Anil Biswas, secretary of the State unit of the CPI(M), said Basu's retirement was discussed at a meeting of the party's State Secretariat and the proposal was presented at a Left Front committee meeting for formal endorsement. Biswas said that there was no difference of opinion on the question of respecting the wishes of the senior leader. There was unanimity also about Buddhadeb Bhattacharya succeeding Basu, Biswas told Frontline.

Basu, 87, one of India's most respected politicians, had earlier expressed his desire to step down from the Chief Minister's post on September 2. However, following a personal request by party general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet, he reportedly agre ed to continue in the post until the CPI(M)'s special party conference, which was held in Thiruvananthapuram from October 20 to 23.

After sending his resignation letter to Governor Viren Shah, Jyoti Basu said at a press conference that age-related problems were making it increasingly difficult for him to bear the burden of the Chief Minister's responsibilities. "I have not been keepi ng well for the past few years. I have been in active politics for over 60 years and have headed the West Bengal government for nearly 24 years at a stretch. At 87, you can well understand the kind of mental and physical strain I am exposed to. That is w hy I asked my party leadership to relieve me from the Chief Minister's responsibilities," Basu said.

Basu said that his departure would not create any problem for the functioning of the government. "Ours is not a bourgeois party. We believe in the democratic process. We have always endeavoured hard for the uplift of the working class. A true communist w ill never hanker for power. And especially when everyone in our party and our Front partners have unanimously chosen Buddhadeb Bhattacharya as my successor, I do not foresee any problems in the functioning of the Left Front once I have stepped down. Budd ha has been doing a stupendous job as both Deputy Chief Minister and Home Minister. I am convinced he will be an equally successful Chief Minister," Basu said.

The Left Front unanimously elected Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, who was appointed Deputy Chief Minister 11 months ago in order to ease Basu's workload, the next Chief Minister. He was sworn in on November 6. Anil Biswas said there was no better candidate than Bhattacharya to succeed Jyoti Basu, who himself settled the question by choosing Bhattacharya as his deputy.

Some constituents of the Left Front, particularly the Forward Bloc, felt that with the Assembly elections due early next year, Basu chose the wrong time to retire. They said that as Basu had led the Front to five consecutive election victories since 1977 and helped institutionalise the system of coalition politics, he should have considered retirement only after ensuring a record sixth term for the Left Front in office.

The Front constituents have requested Basu to be the chairman of the Left Front Committee. Basu has not yet responded to this. Veteran CPI(M) leader Sailen Dasgupta, the present chairman of the Left Front, has expressed his willingness to step down and t ake up the post of the Front's convener.

However, Basu is of the opinion that younger leaders in the party should step out of his shadow to meet the new challenges and run the party organisation and the government.

IN the coming months, the Left Front will have its hands full dealing with the situation created by the Trinamul Congress' campaign against it. Emboldened by its victories in the Panskura Lok Sabha constituency and the Calcutta Municipal Corporation (CMC ), the supporters of Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee have unleashed a wave of violence in Midnapore, Hooghly and Bankura districts. Apparently, their intention is to create a situation that will warrant the imposition of President's Rule in the State.

However, for the Trinamul Congress and its ally the Bharatiya Janata Party, capturing power in the State will not be an easy job. The Trinamul Congress' violence in certain pockets of South Bengal has to a great extent been countered by a resistance move ment inspired by the Left Front.

The Congress(I) is not expected to pose a threat to the Left Front in the 2001 elections. The appointment of Pranab Mukherjee as the State Congress(I) president has only divided the party further, and Congress(I) workers have been caught between two cent res of command - former president A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury, and former working president P.R. Das Munshi.

The BJP is also in a bad state because of internecine quarrels. Moreover, Mamata Banerjee seems to be expecting that a section of the BJP will join her party. Indeed, the process seems to have started already. Recently, Congress(I) leader and former Mini ster Motahar Hossain and Paras Datta, former vice-president of the State BJP, turned up at a Trinamul-sponsored rally in Calcutta and declared that Mamata Banerjee was their leader.

FEW people become legends in their lifetimes. Jyoti Basu has the distinction of being one such. Basu, who was labelled anti-national and jailed for over a year after the India-China war in 1962, went on to acquire the stature of a national leader. He was unanimously elected the United Front's prime ministerial candidate in 1996. However, in accordance with the decision of his party, Basu turned down personal requests made by leaders such as V.P. Singh, Indrajit Gupta, Mulayam Singh Yadav and H.D. Deve G owda to accept the post.

After early education in Calcutta, Basu went to England to study law. While in London, he became a communist and abandoned his plans to become a lawyer. He returned to India in January 1940 and joined the Communist Party of India. Basu was elected an org aniser of the seven-member Bengal Provincial Committee of the Communist Party of India at its first legal conference in 1943. He worked among port and dock labourers. In 1944, the party asked him to organise a trade union for the workers of the Bengal-As sam Railways.

Basu was first elected to the Bengal Legislative Assembly in May 1946 from a railway electoral constituency. He defeated the Congress candidate Humayun Kabir. When the Communist Party of India was banned in 1948, he was arrested.

A leader of mass movements, Basu played a prominent role in organising major agitational programmes such as the resistance to a hike in tram fares in 1953, the teachers' agitation in 1954, the resistance to the Bengal-Bihar merger proposal in 1956 and th e food movement in 1959. The CPI's participation in these agitations helped spread its base in the State, and with it grew Basu's stature as an organiser. He was in the forefront of Statewide demonstrations and protest rallies against the Congress govern ment's failure to check an alarming rise in prices of foodgrains and the illegal foodgrain trade. The Opposition parties, led by the Communist Party of India, launched a movement against the government over the issue of food shortage. The government atte mpted to crush the movement. In the violence that followed, 33 people were killed and nearly 3,000 were injured.

In the first general elections held in January 1952, Basu won from the Baranagar constituency in north Calcutta, defeating his main opponent Harendranath Roy Chowdhury, a Congress Minister and a rich landlord. The CPI won 29 of the 87 seats it contested. In 1957, the party's strength rose to 46 in a House of 280. Basu got re-elected from Baranagar.

In 1967 the Congress lost power in West Bengal, and a coalition of the United Front (U.F.), formed with the CPI(M), the CPI, the Forward Bloc, the Bangla Congress and the RSP, came to power. Although the CPI(M) won the largest number of seats, it accepte d Ajoy Mukherjee of the Bangla Congress, a breakaway group of the Congress, as Chief Minister. Basu was elected Deputy Chief Minister. However, the U.F. did not last long and Ajoy Mukherjee resigned following differences among the U.F. partners. The Forw ard Bloc, the CPI and the Socialist Unity Centre of India (SUCI) refused to stay in the Front led by the CPI(M). The government fell and President's Rule was imposed in March 1970. Mid-term elections were held in 1971. In the elections, the CPI(M) emerge d as the single largest party, with 113 seats in a House of 280, and formed the United Left Front with the RSP. Basu staked his claim to form the government, but his claim was rejected. The Congress, the CPI and the Bangla Congress formed a coalition gov ernment with Ajoy Mukherjee as Chief Minister. However, the government fell when a no-confidence motion, moved by the CPI(M), was passed by the Assembly.

During the 1972 elections, held under President's Rule, the Congress resorted to rigging and large-scale violence and the CPI(M) boycotted the Assembly.

In the 1977 elections, Basu was elected from Satgachia in South 24 Parganas district with an overwhelming majority. Since then, he has won from Satgachia in all the elections. After the 1977 elections, the CPI(M)-led Left Front came to power. The Left Fr ont government, headed by Basu, took office in June 1977.

A party document of that time said: "The CPI(M) in West Bengal has the advantage of having as heads of the party and the government two of the ablest veterans of the Indian communist movement, who have worked together for nearly 40 years, and are both me mbers of the Polit Bureau - Jyoti Basu, 64, suave, sombre and graying, is one of the Chief Ministers in the present-day India who wears the stature of the Prime Minister; Promode Dasgupta, 69, the silver-haired party builder, is the chief of the CPI(M) i n West Bengal and also in charge of the CPI(M) affairs in the other eastern States."

On his first day in the Chief Minister's office, Basu told his Cabinet colleagues: "We will implement our programmes not from Writers' Buildings alone, but from the fields and factories where our strength lies and with the help of the people."

He pledged to carry out a 36-point programme with emphasis on land reforms, law and order and panchayati raj institutions. "The emphasis on land reform is not any exercise in charity, but is essentially a productive move on the basis of hard evidence of superior production performances on the part of the working peasants. Of the total agricultural land distributed through land reforms in India, nearly 20 per cent has been contributed by West Bengal," Basu said.

Twenty-three years later, looking back at Left Front rule under his leadership, Basu said after his resignation: "The rural and agrarian sector is the backbone of the economy of the State. Therefore, the government in the last 23 years gave priority to p rogrammes and schemes dedicated to the improvement of the rural economic scene, based upon the active participation of the people in this process. The democratically elected panchayat and local bodies are the prime movers in rural development."

A pragmatist, Basu has shown great interest in the rapid industrialisation of the State. In the last few years he invited foreign capital to West Bengal. But he has always been cautious in this regard.

Leaders of Left Front constituents say that Basu can look back with satisfaction. They believe that Basu had played a great role in building his party in the State into a disciplined, cohesive unit.

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