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22 June 2024

India's veteran Marxist leader Jyoti Basu dies


Jyoti Basu, the charismatic Indian Marxist who headed the world's most electorally successful communist party for two decades, died on Sunday at the age of 95.

Basu, who was the longest serving chief minister in Indian political history, led the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM) to power in West Bengal in 1977 and ruled the state for an unbroken 23 years.

After an inconclusive general election in 1996, he was within a hair's breadth of becoming prime minister at the head of a centre-left coalition -- a prospect that prompted the headline "Red Star Over Delhi" in one national newspaper.

But the CPM's central committee decided not to participate in the government -- a move that Basu later described as a "historic blunder".

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh paid tribute to Basu's "legendary skills in building consensus" and praised "his style of democratic and decentralised governance".

He died of multiple organ failure in a hospital in Kolkata, capital of West Bengal state.

The son of a well-off Bengali family, Basu was born in 1914 in Kolkata, which was then Calcutta and the capital of British India.

While training to be a lawyer in England in the 1930s, at the time of the Spanish Civil War and the rise of fascism, he was drawn to the communist movement, which he formally joined following his return to India in 1940.

After a period of trade union activity, Basu launched his political career when he was elected to the Bengal legislative assembly.

When the Communist Party of India split in 1964, Basu became one of the first politburo members of the newly formed CPM and several years later he became deputy chief minister of West Bengal.

His more than two-decade reign as chief minister began on June 21, 1977 and will be remembered for rural reforms which included the creation of village councils, and the redistribution of land to peasant farmers.

But critics blame him for allowing West Bengal's economy to stagnate, pointing to his failure to rein in militant trade unions, rejuvenate industry or encourage foreign investment.

An unabashed critic of the United States, Basu mischievously changed the address of the US consulate in Kolkata from Harrington Street to Ho Chi Minh Street.

Ill health forced him to step down as chief minister in 2000.

A widower, Basu is survived by his son, Chandan, who is an industrialist.