The Indian Budget 
1996-97 The Indian Economy Overview

IEO PROFILE: Jyoti Basu, Popular Indian Communist Leader

Jyoti Basu, communist leader from West Bengal, India, turns 83

One of the last communist leaders left alive in the world, 83 year old Jyoti Basu, chief minister of West Bengal, very nearly became India's prime minister in the recent elections. For the blink of a stock-brokers eye, India's fast-track economic reforms teetered on the edge of oblivion. Or maybe not?

Before India's inconclusive 1996 general elections, few rated Mr Basu's chances for the Prime Minister's seat above zero. An octegenarian marxist whose party devotees still keep photos of Stalin and Lenin garlanded like gods, with marigolds, at the party headquarters in Calcutta, Mr Basu seems the unlikeliest of all candidates to run a boisterous democracy of 920 million Indians.

After all, India has jettisoned over 40 years of Soviet-style socialism in favor of Coca-Cola, Kentucky Fried Chicken and free-market capitalism. Its factories and bureaucracy had rusted out. And even Mr Basu, who mischievously renamed the Calcutta address of the American Consulate to Ho Chi Minh street, was forced to swallow his Yankee-phobia and go to Washington to seek investment for West Bengal, where he has ruled as chief minister for 19 years.

A skilled practitioner of realpolitik and a graduate of the London School of Economics, Mr Basu's radicalism began early. As a student at one of the privileged Calcutta Catholic schools during the British colonial days, Mr Basu led his friends on a daytime raid of the posh, whites-only Calcutta Club. Fully-clothed, they splashed merrily in the swimming pool until the Bengali radicals were fished out and arrested.

The youthful prankster turned into an autocratic Marxist, but the diminutive Mr Basu won respect for bringing order and development to West Bengal. "Everybody wants me to be leader," he joked recently. "I've even had calls from Bangladesh asking me to run things there."

In any other country, an old Marxist like Mr Basu would be an anachronism. But India's poverty and social injustices -- especially in the countryside where untouchables cannot "pollute" the village well by drinking from it, or worship inside temples -- a strong, progressive current pulls at the country.

Mr Basu's Communist Party of India (Marxist) belongs to a ragtag assortment of small regional parties, socialists and other communists (without the Marxist bracket behind their name), and parties who champion the rights of India's Muslim minority and the lower-caste Indians who are trying to escape out from under the bottom of Hinduism's complex hierarchy.

Known as the National Front-Left Front, the alliance captured the third largest number of seats in the spring elections that resulted in a hung parliament. The Bharatiya Janata Party, (BJP) won the most seats with its nationalist rhetoric, but not enough to survive a vote of confidence. With a few new rebels from the losing Congress party, the NF-LF, re-christened the United Front, made a play for power. In a country desperate for a leader of prime ministerial caliber, a reluctant Mr Basu emerged as a possible candidate, but not for long.

After a flurry of back-room bargaining, in which the defeated Congress party pledged to support the United Front - if only to keep the hated BJP out of power - Mr H D Deve Gowda, a soft-spoken farmer's son from the southern state of Karnataka was appointed to lead the motley 13-party coalition.

Mr Basu's party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), not to be confused with Communist Party of India, opted out of the United Front but says it will not go against the coalition on crucial votes in parliament. Meanwhile, Mr Basu has faded quietly into a red sunset.

Tim McGirk is the South Asia correspondent for the Independent of London, and The Sydney Morning Herald of Australia. He is also the author of a book on Salvadore Dali's wife. McGirk lives with his wife and two sons in New Delhi.

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