Kolkata: Jyoti Basu, whose unbroken 23-year stewardship of West Bengal’s Left Front government made him the longest reigning chief minister of an Indian state, died on Sunday after suffering multiple organ failure. He was 95 years old.
Basu, who came close to becoming prime minister in 1996, died at 11.47am in Kolkata’s AMRI Hospital, where he was admitted with pneumonia on New Year’s Day. His condition worsened on 12-13 January after which he was put on life support.
Basu, who developed complications that led to the multiple organ failure late on Saturday night, will be cremated on Tuesday. A widower, he is survived by his son Chandan, daughter-in-law and four grandchildren. His son and other close relatives were at the hospital when he breathed his last.
Towering personality: Jyoti Basu. Bikas Das / AP
“I have a sad announcement to make. Jyoti Basu is no more with us,” a teary-eyed Left Front chairman Biman Bose said. “He has left us.”
The eyes of Basu, who had donated them, were removed by doctors of an eye hospital and his body was placed at a funeral parlour after being carried there on a hearse from which red flags fluttered.
The West Bengal government declared a holiday on Monday as a mark of respect to the Marxist patriarch, who has donated his body, too, to a state-run hospital for the cause of medical research, making Tuesday’s cremation a largely symbolic ceremony.
Basu, West Bengal chief minister from 21 June 1977 to 6 November 2000, almost became the prime minister after the 1996 Lok Sabha elections as the head of a Centre-Left coalition. The Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, spurned the offer of the post to Basu on grounds that it did not want to be part of a government in which it did not have a majority—a rejection that Basu later described as a “historic blunder”.
Prime Minster Manmohan Singh said Basu’s death marked the passing of an era in Indian politics. “He was a powerful regional voice in the national political scene and helped to strengthen Indian federalism,” Singh said.
Basu, known for a staid and sometimes brusque style that earned him the sobriquet of “a field marshal in a gentleman’s garb”, influenced his party to extend outside support to the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre after the 2004 general election.
The CPM eventually parted ways with the coalition in 2008 over the Indo-US civilian nuclear cooperation agreement.
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“Jyoti Basu did not go gentle into the good night.” Congress president Sonia Gandhi said in a message. “He fought bravely till his last breath, just as he did throughout his life... He served his country, his party and his state with whole-hearted dedication for over half a century.”
Congress party officials said finance minister Pranab Mukherjee, also chief of the Congress’ West Bengal unit, will attend the cremation on Tuesday as the representative of the Union government and the party.
CPM general secretary Prakash Karat credited Basu with the land reforms that gave security to millions of farmers, the rejuvenation of panchayat institutions and the “creation of an enduring atmosphere of secularism” in West Bengal.
“Basu was a great leader of the CPM, the Left movement and India. Although he died at the age of 95, he leaves us bereft—because there will be none like JB again,” Karat said.
Popular leader: Former West Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu’s body being taken to Peace Haven funeral parlour in Kolkata on Sunday. Basu was the longest reigning chief minister of an Indian state. Ashok Bhaumik / PTI
Born on 8 July 1914 in an affluent family in Kolkata, Basu started taking interest in politics when he was a student of law in the UK in the late 1930s.
He became a barrister and returned to India in 1940, and almost immediately got involved with the then banned Communist Party of India (CPI), despite strong resistance from his parents.
By 1944, he started leading trading union activities of the CPI, and in 1946, he was elected to the newly created Bengal legislative assembly. When in 1964 the CPM was founded with the defection of 31 national council members from the CPI, Basu became one of the nine members of the CPM’s politburo, the party’s highest decision-making body.
After stepping down as chief minister in November 2000, Basu withdrew himself from active politics. Until then, he and Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee, whose party is the main opposition group in West Bengal, were bitter political adversaries.
Banerjee described him on Sunday as the “first and last chapter of the Left Front government”.
“After he stepped down from office as chief minister I had gone to see him 10 times. Towards the end, a deep bond had developed between us,” she said.