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Sunday, January 17, 2010

Jyoti Basu, 95, Leader of Communists in India, Dies

January 17, 2010

NEW DELHI — Jyoti Basu, a powerful leftist leader who dominated politics in the state of West Bengal for more than two decades and nearly became India’s first Communist prime minister, died in Calcutta on Sunday. He was 95.

Mr. Basu’s outsized stature in West Bengal was evident by a huge public outpouring of concern in recent days as his health steadily deteriorated. Anxious crowds gathered outside his Calcutta hospital, local newspapers carried front-page updates on his condition and a litany of leading Indian politicians, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, made calls to him. He died of multiple organ failure, according to Indian press reports.

Mr. Basu was known as a savvy political survivor, skilled at building coalitions and forging consensus, whose biggest policy initiatives were sweeping land reforms in West Bengal. The reforms distributed land to more than two million landless families and, in turn, established a leftist coalition known as the Left Front that dominated state politics for three decades until showing recent signs of weakening.

Mr. Singh praised the Communist leader as a pragmatic, visionary politician whose death “marks the end of an era in the annals of Indian politics.”

Born July 8, 1914, in Calcutta, Mr. Basu was raised as a doctor’s son in an aristocratic family. He later studied law in London, where he also embraced Marxism before returning to Calcutta in 1940. He then joined the Communist Party of India and began organizing railroad workers in the last years of the British Raj.

After India’s independence in 1947, Mr. Basu was elected several times to the local assembly. When the Communist Party of India split in 1964, he was among the founders of the more radical Communist Party of India (Marxist). He became chief minister in 1977 as the leader of a multiparty Left Front coalition and held that position, the most powerful in the state, until 2000.

He nearly became India’s prime minister in 1996 as the head of a multiparty national coalition. But his selection was rejected by hard-liners in his own party, who argued that leading a coalition government would betray Marxist principles and not allow him to carry out Marxist policies.

His land reforms won national praise but West Bengal’s industrial policies were criticized during his tenure. Today, the popularity of his CPI-Marxist party has suffered severely, amid concerns about corruption and bad governance.

Report Courtesy NY TIMES

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