Excerpts from " JYOTI BASU: An Authorised Biography" , by Surabhi Banerjee, Viking, 1997

'In politics there are moments when you have to rise to the occasion and you've got to cater to the need of the hour and the pleas of the people.'

In May,1996, Jyoti Basu, West Bengal's former chief minister and one of the most respected politicians in this country, was on the verge of becoming India's first Communist prime minister. The United Front wanted him as its leader, but his party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) -- decided not to join goverment at the centre.

In this extract from Basu's authorised biography,

Surabhi Banerjee reveals what really happened.

It was the night of May 15, 1996. Indira Bhavan was steeped in silence. At eleven the remote-controlled gates slid opened to let in Basu's convoy. Five minutes later, Basu was in his bedroom, finally alone. He was too drained to even contemplate the storm that had wracked his feeling for the past few days. He sighed deeply and sank into his bed. He had a hammering headache and looked for his balm.

The race to form the government began on May 9 but for a while it seemed that no party would be able to sink its differences for long enough to achieve a precarious majority. Jyoti Basu was in Delhi on May 10 for a meeting of the Politburo to discuss the situation. The BJP had the maximum number of seats and though it seemed to have only a slim chance of surviving in the face of the determination of the Congress and the Third Front to keep it out of power, the BJP nonetheless acted as though it had already won the battle.

But it seemed hard for the two major non-BJP entities to get together, there were so many differences between them. The Third Front hoped that a group of Congressmen might decided to leave the Congress and join 'a non-Narasimha Rao, non-BJP government'. P V Narasimha Rao was trying to garner support so that his depleted Congress could stake its claim. The Left parties bickered and dithered among themselves and smaller parties like the Tamil Manila Congress and the Asom Gana Parishad were prepared to be wooed without committing themselves to anyone.
As the days passed, and the deadline approached for the new government to be sworn in, the politicking increased. The BJP appeared confident of securing the elusive majority, but the Third Front seemed assured as well, though in its case it was unable to decide on a leader of the non-BJP coalition it was trying to put together. Both Basu and V P Singh wouldn't say yes and the impasse continued.

While Basu was still in Calcutta and preparing to leave for Delhi, he received a call from V P Singh. 'He told me that he had negotiated with the Janata Dal and the other allies and that they had all unanimously wanted me as their leader and prime minister.

'It was nice to hear such good tidings,' says Basu, after a brief pause. 'But I couldn't commit anything at that moment. I told him that I was coming to Delhi and that we would meet and talk across the table.'

The flight to Delhi was late and it was nearly half past ten at night when Basu entered his suite on the fourth floor of Banga Bhavan. After a brief rest he ordered his chief cook Mahendra to serve dinner. He could not eat in peace. There was a spate of calls, which did not cease until well after midnight. Basu finished his frugal meal hastily, got up and cancelled his usual after-dinner fifteen-minute stroll in the bedroom of Banga Bhavan because the telephone kept ringing. All this callers, who included Congressmen, business tycoons, and members of the Third Front parties, were hoping he would agree to become the prime minister of India.

Basu was not euphoric about the prospect though the idea had been mooted to him ever since he had became one of the country's most important leaders in the past few years. 'I thought perhaps the hour of the final decision had arrive now,' he says. 'But in this case, my personal decisions were not going to work. It was for the Politburo and the Central Committee to decide. How could I say yes without weighing the real strength and opinion of my party with my feet on the ground?'

He expressed his doubts to the excited Harkishen Singh Surjeet who had a brief talk with him. 'We were not strong enough to wield control over the coalition. How could I have managed this diverse group? Besides, the Congress, going by its record, might have suddenly withdrawn its support, who knows.'

Basu spent a restless night. He felt thoroughly tired and restless after the flight and the disturbing flurry of activities since he had stepped into Banga Bhavan. He had a clear vision of the unstable future of the Third Front, but at the same time he realised the necessity of holding the BJP at bay. If a non-BJP coalition came to power it would need a strong leader who could steer it out of trouble and keep it functioning.

'It was a thoroughly impossible situation,' says Basu, 'and I decided to leave the matter to the party.' But he was not sitting on the fence any longer. 'Yes, if it is for the credibility of the Third Front,' he said at the time. 'I'm ready to offer myself as the consensus candidate if there's no other alternative, even though my health is not good. However, the decision lies with the Central Committee.'

The Politburo met the next morning. Basu repeated his doubts about the extreme difficulty of running a coalition with such a meagre strength of the party. However, he was ready to join the government because he thought it would be politically correct under the 'circumstances'. The majority of the Politburo felt otherwise. They were against being part of government.

Basu was disappointed and saddened by the way the meeting was going. 'Why then did we fight corruption and communalism and take the lead in calling for a Third Front? Had we already anticipated that we would never be a part of this government?'

he says. 'My mind was assailed by a thousand such questions. Mulayam (Singh Yadav) came to see me on the morning of May 11 and pressed me to accept the leadership,' says Basu. 'I asked him why he was not nominating VP. In my opinion, he was the fittest person to be the prime minister of India, even though his health was bad and he was undergoing treatment. But Mulayam did not concur. Mulayam even made an official statement in a television interview in the evening that he and his party and his front wanted Jyoti Basu as their leader.'

He adds, 'I was constantly being coaxed into accepting the key post. I was simply waiting for the party's stand now. I was inclined to accept the onerous but unanimous offer for the credibility of the Third Front and secondly for solving the stalemate. I had categorically ruled out the idea of being the prime minister before, but in politics there are moments when you have to rise to the occasion and you've got to cater to the need of the hour and the pleas of the people, our infallible judge. I was doing just that, in the interest of keeping the BJP at bay at any expense and also to keep the flag of the Third Front flying,' he concludes.

The meeting continued until May 12. Basu did not betray his inner turmoil and proposed that as the Politburo was undecided, the issue be placed before the Central Committee. The proposals framed for the Central Committee, which was scheduled to meet on May 13, were whether there should be a non-Congress government at the Centre supported by the Congress from the outside (but only unconditionally!) and whether the CPI-M was going to participate in government. He told this writer later, 'I waited for the stand of the Central Committee though I could feel their pulse after the Politburo meeting. I rang Mulayam to say that they must look for a new leader. I can't deny that I felt we were making a mistake in the new situation.'


A member of the BJP later admitted that if Jyoti Basu had emerged as the Front leader they would have faced a serious crisis.

After the Politburo meeting concluded on May 12, an exhausted Basu returned to Banga Bhavan. He took a few calls from well-wishers and politicians in his bedroom, had his cup of tea. 'But it was not time to call it a day a yet.' A few minutes later, one of his cabinet colleagues, a member of the Central Committee, arrived. Their discussion veered to their stand in the emergency Central Committee meeting that was to be convened the next morning. . He seemed to share Basu's views on joining the coalition. 'You can't carry on endless discussions. At one point you simply have to stop and take the decision, which, whatever be the magnitude of the issue, can only be a brave yes or a dry no,' remarks Basu.

The Central Committee met on the morning of May 13. Basu presided over the meeting. Harkishen Singh Surjeet presented a note on the discussions in the Politburo and the majority and the minority views. The issue sparked off a heated debate which went on for several hours -- but the majority decision was not to join the United Front government.

Basu displayed a calm exterior during the meeting but a fierce storm was brewing within. 'At one point, I thought that we've been patient enough, enough is enough, and it is time put the issue to the vote - a rare occurrence in the history of the Central Committee.' The majority voted against joining the government. Thirty-five votes were cast by the majority against twenty for the minority view with four remaining undecided.

Meanwhile, as the Central Committee deliberated, the main partners in the central coalition met at Bihar Bhavan and unanimously decided on Jyoti Basu as their candidate for prime minister as V P Singh had declared that he would not be available for the position.

The Third Front leaders came to know the decision of the Central Committee of the CPI-M at about four o'clock in the evening. Most leaders criticised the decision. Basu and Surjeet reached Bihar Bhavan at about seven thirty , with a copy of the decision of the Central Committee. The meeting room was brimming with important political leaders, among them Indrajit Gupta, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Laloo Prasad Yadav, I K Gujral, Surendra Mohan, Ram Vilas Paswan and Wasim Ahmed. V P Singh was not there. He had just returned from Udhampur in Jammu and had driven home straight from the airport because he was feeling out of sorts.

The decision of the CPI-M came to the Front as a bolt from the blue. Basu explained the resolution of the Central Committee to its members. Mulayam was visibly disappointed. In fact, all of them were at a loss. A crisis loomed large. If they could not choose their leader, the BJP was going to form the government.

Nobody noticed that Wasim Ahmed, a close associate of V P Singh, had quietly slipped out of the room while the discussions were on. He rushed to V P's house and briefed him on the latest developments. The leaders requested the CPI-M to reconsider its decision in view of the threat of communalist forces hijacking the government. Surjeet promised to ask the Central Committee to review its decision.

There was quite a crowd waiting for Basu upon his return to Banga Bhavan, journalists, supporters, politicians, all wanting him to appraise them of the latest developments. Basu refused to oblige them and went straight to his suite where his son Chandan had been waiting for some time. Chandan told him that Narasimha Rao had called to enquire whether his father would take over.

The BJP felt threatened. A member of the BJP later admitted that if Jyoti Basu had emerged as the Front leader they would have faced a serious crisis. Basu took important calls, had dinner with his son Chandan and some other friends and relations. Chandan was vehemently opposed to his father becoming the prime minister as the family would be under great pressure and in danger from political and extremist groups. Basu told him it was a political issue and his opinion did not count.


'I don't blame the President at all. He was compelled by the force of circumstances'

The members of the Central Committee were immediately informed about the special session next morning to review their earlier decision in the light of the appeal by the United Front leaders. 'Nine members had left already,' says Basu. 'Nevertheless, we reconvened the meeting and we decided to take the views of the absentee members into account on record.'

The special meeting on May 14 stuck to its earlier stand. Discussions ensued until Basu called for votes, but the majority still opposed the proposal to join the government and make Basu the prime minister.

Later, Basu met with leaders of the United Front and alternative names for the prime ministership were discussed. In the absence of Basu and V P Singh as candidates, G K Moopanar of the Tamil Maanila Congress and H D Deve Gowda were mooted as alternatives. Basu proposed Deve Gowda for the prime ministership and this was accepted. There was, however, one further appeal to Basu, from Deve Gowda himself in a letter on May 14.

He wrote:
At the outset, let me express my heartfelt thanks to you for suggesting my name to lead the Third Front government at the Centre. It shows your humility and fairness of mind. But in all fairness I should make it clear that you are the senior-most leader in the country who has led a coalition government in West Bengal successfully for the last eighteen years. This rich experience and the stature that you have attained as an unquestioned leader of the party in the country, made me come to this conclusion that you are the best and the right person to lead the nation under these very fluid and critical conditions.

I am sure that all non-BJP, non-Congress parties, with a secular bent of mind, will accept your leadership without any hesitation whatsoever. It was precisely because of this reason that we anonymously made a request to Central Committee of the Community Party to revise their decision so that it would facilitate your taking over as the prime minister of the country.
I assure you of mine and my party's support to run the government effectively under all circumstances. Once again I assure you that I would stand by you in all times of stress and strain and offer whenever necessary any little advice that I could in successfully tackling the difficult problems of this vast country.

Finally, I hope and trust that at this juncture, keeping in mind the paramount interest of the nation and the sentimental feelings of all secular parties of the country, the Central Committee of your party would revise the earlier decision and facilitate you to take over the government as prime minister to run it for the good of the country. To ensure this, I reiterate my full co-operation and my party's support....

Basu then called on President Shankar Dayal Sharma and briefed him on the position of the United Front. 'I told him,' said Basu, 'we do not have a clear majority but as the Congress is giving us two letters of support, we would request you to call us as soon as the letters reach you.' The President agreed. 'We came out at about 1:30 pm but there was an inordinate delay on the part of the Congress in sending us the letter assuring support to the UF government. It only reached the President as late as 3:55 pm. Given the delay the President called the BJP to form the government.'

'It was highly dramatic,' remarks Basu, 'but I don't blame the President at all. He was compelled by the force of circumstances.' In the event the BJP formed the government and then its Prime Minister Vajpayee had to suffer the indignity of being evicted from office in a fortnight, the shortest term any prime minister has served. The United Front took charge with H D Deve Gowda as prime minister.


'The view the majority held was wrong. It was a historical blunder'

Basu himself is quite articulate on this 'gross political mistake' as he would prefer to call it. 'Why did the party take such a stubborn stand against your becoming prime minister and the party joining the government?' this writer asked him.

'Apparently it was the lack of proper political understanding, I would say, which stood in their way of reacting positively to the situation. The view the majority held was wrong,' Basu replied. 'It was a historical blunder.' The episode lingers painfully in his mind. That the party could not realise the worth of his stand on the vital decision is an affront to his reading of the situation.
'The people would always blame us as they had blamed us for not supporting Morarji Desai's government,' Basu says. 'I was in Bucharest on a holiday. I was on the beach when I had a phone call from Prime Minister Morarji Desai. He said that I was immediately wanted in India for his government was in crisis. I hate being dragged into home affairs, unless it is imperative, when I am abroad. But I decided that our support should not withdrawn, because since Morarji did not have the majority, in any case his government would have to fall. There was no necessity of withdrawing our support. But before I had returned to India, the party had already taken the decision of not supporting him and had made the blunder. But I was in a minority... '
'Even Indira,' says Basu, 'who had no scruples when it came to politics, gave the government support, and our party was blamed for the fall of the Morarji government and later it facilitated Indira's comeback. It was a mistake, but perhaps not as great as the one in mid-May 1996,' he says sadly.

The decision to abstain from government and prevent Jyoti Basu from becoming prime minister was obviously not wholly an ideological one. A Central Committee member said, 'The Washington Post had headlines calling Jyoti Basu the future prime minister of India and so did The New York Times. Why was the American press playing it up? Wasn't this all international? It's a matter of grave concern.'

Another member said. 'He's old enough to look after the state and here we have a number of competent administrators who help him in his work. He is not going to get the same sort of support at the Centre. The people in our state who supported his proposed prime ministership have, of course, their own views.' Basu dismisses their logic and their arguments, theoretical or ideological, as 'absurd'.

He has an unequalled record of running a Communist government for two decades now, heading a coalition which often pulls in different directions. No wonder he aroused the curiosity of the media and the question inevitably arose as to what would be his stand if he were offered the post of prime minister. This writer's impression in the course of interacting with him has always been that he would be genuinely reluctant to accept it. He has never been an aspirant for premiership. But his agreeing to have his name put forward for prime minister had little to do with personal ambition.

When The Guardian of London interviewed him immediately before the election, he said an unequivocal no to the possibility. The reporter from The Guardian later said to this writer, 'Everybody usually says no to such questions, but I think you're right, I also feel that he really meant it. He was absolutely honest.' Basu never tires of saying why he decided to accept if his name were proposed: it would be for the good of the nation.

Many people felt that his vast experience in leading coalition governments to power, in running a government and in party politics would have benefited the party and the country. As one political analyst said: 'This was going to be a watershed date in the history of the CPI-M. It was also described as a sign of the party's growing up, coming of age, because if Basu became the prime minister, the CPI-M would grow from a regional party to a party of national calibre, in the real sense of the word. Its policy would be dictated by what it perceived to be in the interest of India, not of West Bengal and Kerala alone.'


Many of the Central Committee members had come to the meetings determined not to let Basu become prime minister because of personal rivalry and ideological differences.

In May last year, Jyoti Basu, West Bengal's chief minister and one of the most respected politicians in this country, was on the verge of becoming India's first Communist prime minister. The United Front wanted him as its leader, but Basu's own party -- the Communist Party of India-Marxist -- would not allow him to be sworn in as prime minister.

V P Singh said publicly, 'Jyoti Basu is a towering figure in India's public life, a man who has proved his skill at consensus-building by leading a state-level coalition five times into power.'
The general feeling following the Central Committee's decision -- and this was borne out by conversations this writer had with several party members and other political analysts -- was that it was the age-old internal divisions within the party, and not the national interest that decided the issue. Many of the Central Committee members had come to the meetings determined not to let Basu become prime minister because of personal rivalry and ideological differences.

The morning after his return to Calcutta, Basu had a brief meeting with the chief secretary on the swearing-in ceremony of the state government that would take place on May 20. He glanced through the list of state invitees. Congratulations poured in all day from home and abroad on his returning to power in West Bengal, but there were also expressions of disappointment at his not being chosen the prime minister. He was unemotional in his response to both kinds of messages.
He visited the party office in the evening, met his comrades, and behaved normally, though it was obvious that he was not in good spirits. He analysed with his colleagues the results of the elections and worked on the agenda of the state committee meeting scheduled to be held on May 17. The next morning, he attended the meeting of the secretariat and discussed the appointments and portfolios of ministers in the new government.

The effect of his time in Delhi continued to subdue his mood; he was now starting to tire of providing explanations. Referring to the enquires he says, 'They don't understand one simple thing, I can't take a personal decision even if I wish to join the government. The majority in the party decided not to join. I had to accept the verdict.'

By the time the swearing-in of the West Bengal ministry took place on May 20, he was much happier. It was obvious that the Delhi debacle was receding from his mind. And then, on May 21, he received a message from the United Front in Delhi saying his presence was required in Delhi for the formation of a steering committee to advise the new government. Delhi detained him for a few days but he was back in Calcutta on the 24th, and presided over his first cabinet meeting on May 28.

In the following weeks, he was asked to be in Delhi frequently as the central cabinet tried to settle down, until he asked them to be a bit more practical. ''How can I commute between Delhi and West Bengal so frequently?'' he asked and requested the Front to keep him out of as many of the committees as they could.

The press continued to comment on the CPI-M's decision not to participate in the coalition at the Centre. The Front leaders and the other members of the Front expected that the CPI-M would reverse its decision and relent especially as the CPI had decided to join the coalition in the first week of June. The chief minister of Bihar, Laloo Prasad Yadav, said in Patna, 'They (the CPI-M) are taking a decision and will join the government within a month.'

Even V P Singh was confident that the CPI-M would soon join the Deve Gowda government. Welcoming the move of the CPI, he hoped that the CPI-M would follow suit. The Andhra Pradesh chief minister, Chandrababu Naidu, similarly urged them to join the government. 'The CPI-M leaders have worked hard to bring secular parties on a common platform and should reconsider their decision. The TDP also favours joining the government,' he said in Hyderabad.
Newspaper editorials suggested the same, feeling that the CPI move offered the CPI-M a fresh opportunity to make up for its earlier bungling and call the shots in national politics.

At this time it became clear that a view was being put out by a section of the CPI-M that Basu had been a willing party to the decision by the Central Committee and the Politburo to refrain from joining the United Front government. Basu did not react to the opinion being bandied about.


'If this government emulates the Congress, it will not be possible to keep it in office for long'
In 1996, Basu completed fifty years in electoral politics, and had become chief minister of West Bengal for a record fifth time. He would have become Indian's oldest prime minister if his own party hadn't raised objections. What did he see as his priorities at this time?

According to him there were two things he intended to focus on. The first was attempting to look for ways to revitalise his own party which had lost a bit of ground to other parties. The more pressing problem was to support the United Front at the Centre; in addition, the CPI-M would have to oppose the government whenever it was headed in the wrong direction, though the criticism would need to be constructive at all times.

Says Basu: ''The United Front will have difficulty as they have no experience of running a multi-party government as we have. That is why we are trying to convince them that in spite of all difficulties, they must work together. Unanimity in all matters may not be possible, but it is possible to agree on many matters and work together. Our policy is how to oppose this government in some matters and support it in others. But we do want this government to continue. If this government emulates the Congress, it will not be possible to keep it in office for long. We may have many differences of opinion in economic and social fields, but our main task now is to prevent the BJP from coming to power.'' Basu told his state committee as well as the CPI-M leadership that the party would have to ensure that the UF implemented its common minimum programme.

''Unlike the Left Front governments in India,'' Basu says, ''whether committees exist to help in the implementation of programmes placed before the people, the constituents of the UF government and their supporters had no such common programme. After the general election the UF came into existence with a common minimum programme and a steering committee was formed to guide the government. For the CPI--M the task is not only difficult but complicated as well because while it is pledged to help the government it also reserves the right to criticise it and organise movements whenever necessary. It is a new experiment unlike that during the Janata government when there were no commonly worked out programmes nor a steering committee. Only time and experience will show the effect of this stand and policy.'' He adds, ''In any event the unity of the left parties has to be separately maintained despite the visions among them in regard to joining the UF government.''

Excerpted from ''Jyoti Basu: An Authorised Biography'' , by Surabhi Banerjee, Viking, 1997, Rs 400, with the publisher's permission.

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