© 2024 KOSU
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

India's 'Marxist Patriarch' Dead

Thousands of people lined the streets of the city of Kolkata on Sunday as a large white hearse, festooned with red flags bearing the hammer and sickle, slowly carried away the man known as India's "Marxist patriarch."

Lying within the hearse, clad in white — and still wearing his owlish spectacles — was the body of Jyoti Basu, one of the country's pre-eminent post-independence leaders, who died in a private hospital at the age of 95 from complications caused by pneumonia.

For 23 years, Basu was the chief minister of West Bengal — an eastern state that has been a Marxist bastion for the past three decades. It is among the most economically and culturally important parts of India; its population of more than 80 million is larger than that of France.

As soon as Basu's death was announced Sunday by a tearful spokesman from his Communist Party, tributes began pouring in from across India's political spectrum and from its highest levels. India's 24-hour television stations canceled their schedules and gave wall-to-wall coverage to special programs about his career. India's prime minister, Manmohan Singh, called him a "great son of India."

Basu was a refined and somewhat aloof figure, who turned to Marxism as a young man after studying to be a barrister in London, where he formed ties with British communists. On his return to India in 1940, he turned to trade union activism, representing the railway workers of Kolkata — then known as Calcutta.

Basu's father, an upper-middle-class doctor, reacted to his son's sharp left turn by disinheriting him.

Basu's long career encompassed many acquaintances. He personally knew Jawaharlal Nehru, India's founding father; and Nehru's daughter, former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who was assassinated in 1984. He met some of history's best-known communist leaders, including Castro and Brezhnev — and also Ho Chi Minh, after whom Basu and his party comrades named a Kolkata street.

Basu's admirers say that chief among his achievements were the land reforms that were introduced into rural West Bengal in the 1980s, lifting many Bengali peasants out of abject poverty. He is also widely acknowledged to have been a skillful, if brusque, administrator, and an accomplished dealmaker.

Basu was a Politburo member of the Communist Party of India-Marxist, which he helped found in 1964 after a major split within the ranks of India's communists. The party dominates the left front coalition that has been in power in West Bengal for 33 years.

During his long stint in office, Basu became increasingly pragmatic in his outlook, pursuing policies that bore little resemblance to Marxist ideology — including seeking investment from international corporations.

In 1996, Basu was offered the post of prime minister by a coalition government, but was forced to decline by pressure from hard-liners within his party. He later described that decision as a "historic blunder."

Basu has no shortage of critics. They cite the conduct of his party, whose offices display portraits of Lenin and Stalin, and whose cadres ruthlessly exercise autocratic power in many institutions, from universities to village level.

Though he retired as chief minister in 2000, Basu is still frequently accused of retarding the economic growth of West Bengal and of its capital, Kolkata — a city with a long record of militant trade union activism, which is still frequently disrupted by strikes and blockades.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.
KOSU is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.