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Monday, 6 November, 2000, 14:40 GMT
India's Red star fades away
Voters in Midnapore, West Bengal
Voters in rural Bengal have staunchly backed Mr Basu
By Andrew Whitehead

India's longest-serving chief minister, the communist Jyoti Basu, has stepped down after 23 years in charge of the state of West Bengal.

When Jyoti Basu first came to power in Calcutta as chief minister of one of India's most populous states, the Soviet Union was still securely under communist control, Jimmy Carter was president of the United States, and Margaret Thatcher had still to win her first UK general election victory.

Those were momentous times, with the Spanish Civil War and the rise of fascism

Jyoti Basu on Europe in the 1920s
The five successive poll victories which have kept Jyoti Basu in power make the communists of West Bengal the most electorally successful communist party in the world.

And Jyoti Basu himself, now 86, steps down knowing that he's one of the most highly regarded of India's political leaders.

He comes from a prosperous Bengali family, and in his early twenties was sent to London to train as a lawyer.

Early days

"While there, I was drawn to the communist movement," he once told me.

"Those were momentous times, with the Spanish Civil War and the rise of fascism. And also the Communist Party of Great Britain was supporting our independence movement in India."

Jyoti Basu
Born 8 July 1914

Studied law in UK in the 1930s

Joined Indian communist movement

Elected to West Bengal legislative assembly in 1946

Became chief minister June 1977
The young Jyoti Basu returned to take an active role in an Indian communist movement on the margins of legality.

He had periods on the run, and spells in jail.

But he benefited from the party's change of approach, from insurrection to parliamentary politics.

This young, articulate lawyer was just the sort of person the party needed.

He was elected to the Bengal Legislative Assembly as early as 1946, was briefly deputy Chief Minister of West Bengal in the 1960s, and then became Chief Minister in June 1977.

Rural reforms

Jyoti Basu points to the establishment of village councils, and the redistribution of land to peasant farmers, as the successes of his time in power.

But his critics say that West Bengal's economy has stagnated, and that the Communist party, at least at local level, has sometimes become tainted by corruption and thuggery.

Jyoti Basu at a May Day rally
Turning down premiership was a "historic blunder"
Though Jyoti Basu's party has remained ideologically rigid - indeed Stalin's portrait is still on display in the party's Calcutta headquarters - in policy terms, it has been much more flexible.

While denouncing global capitalism, it has also sought to persuade big international corporations to invest in West Bengal.

This pragmatism has been a hallmark of Jyoti Basu's time in power.

He has come to be regarded as a calm, wise voice in the sometimes stormy waters of Indian politics.

Possible PM

After the 1996 general election, Jyoti Basu had a chance to become India's prime minister at the head of a centre-left coalition.

'Red Star Over Delhi' ran the banner headline of one national newspaper.

But the party's central committee rejected the move, insisting that communists should never take part in any government unless they are the dominant force.

A few months later, Jyoti Basu - in a startling breach of communist discipline - declared that his party had made "a colossal blunder, a historic blunder".

As he clears his desk, he must be reflecting that he could be leaving active political life not as a chief minister, but as prime minister.

But for his fellow communists in West Bengal, the end of Jyoti Basu's long years in power poses an acute problem.

With state elections expected next year, can they hope to win yet another poll victory without the wily, charismatic Jyoti Basu at their helm?

Andrew Whitehead presents the BBC's World Today and is a former correspondent in Delhi

The BBC's Jill McGivering in Delhi
"Some critics accuse him of being too dominant"
Communist leader Jyoti Basu
"I am satisfied that the people of West Bengal have created history"
See also:

27 Oct 00 | South Asia
Veteran communist to step down
28 Jul 00 | South Asia
Veteran Indian Marxist taken ill
26 Nov 99 | South Asia
Ailing Basu gets deputy
25 Apr 99 | South Asia
India faces fresh elections
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