Thousands mourn Basu, the patriarch of Indian communism

Jyoti Basu, the patriarch of Indian communism whose pragmatic politics twice brought him close to becoming the prime minister, has died.

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KOLKATA // Jyoti Basu, the patriarch of Indian communism whose pragmatic politics twice brought him close to becoming the prime minister, died yesterday. He was 95. Basu's death is seen as a possible blow to unity among a disparate group of communists facing a tough election next year in the eastern state of West Bengal, a traditional leftist stronghold.

"Jyoti Basu played the role of the elderly patriarch whose more mature, considered view and ability to retain the broad base of support were very important," said a political analyst, Mahesh Rangarajan. Basu died from multiple organ failure at a city hospital, where tens of thousands of his admirers gathered, many teary-eyed. Others raised their hands in a salute as Basu's body was carried in a hearse to a city mortuary.

"The passing away of Basu from the scene marks the end of an era in the annals of Indian politics," India's prime minister, Manmohan Singh, said in a statement. A London-trained barrister, Basu entered politics as a union leader and gained fame leading West Bengal for almost a quarter of a century, the longest-serving chief minister in Indian political history. He stepped down in 2000 because of failing health.

He led the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) which is at the head of a ruling leftist coalition in West Bengal and which faces an election next year amid sliding popularity. While Basu's rule was credited with bringing stability to West Bengal, he was blamed for allowing the economy to stagnate, often at the hands of militant trade unions opposing even the use of computers in government offices for fear of job losses.

While Basu retired from active politics a decade ago, his towering stature retained its unifying influence among leftist groups and he continued to play the role of crisis manager and political arbitrator. Kshiti Goswami, a West Bengal minister and a coalition ally, said it would be difficult to maintain the leftist coalition without the charismatic leader. Basu's party and its allies, despite their long years in power, have often differed over policy issues such as acquiring farmland for industry as the communists struggle with the question of economic reforms to keep pace with the rest of India.

But Basu's brand of liberal communism ensured wide acceptability for him and he was offered the job of prime minister twice in 1996, but had to decline because of opposition from within his party. Basu described that decision as a "historic blunder" in an open criticism of a section of his party's dogmatic ideologues. His staid and sometimes brusque style earned him the sobriquet of "a field marshal in a gentleman's garb". Mostly seen in a flowing white shirt and Indian wraparound, he was the communists' star poll campaigner, his charisma often drawing a million supporters to his public meetings.

* Reuters