Bouquets, emotions overwhelm Jyoti Basu on 96th birthday

KOLKATA, JULY 8: By his own admission, Communists don't celebrate their birthdays. But ailing former West Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu was overwhelmed by the huge number of people who turned up to wish him on his 96th birthday Wednesday.

Hundreds of schoolchildren greeted the Marxist patriarch. Admirers from all various walks of life, including his Communist Party of India-CPI(M) comrades and their rivals, assembled outside Indira Bhavan, the Salt Lake residence of Basu.

"I am not well. I've become bedridden nowadays. But I welcome all of you who have come here to greet me on my birthday," Basu said in a frail and halting voice.

"I think all of you, who have come over here, are well wishers of the state. You want the state to prosper. I am with you," Basu said.

"I can't even walk properly but as so many people have come here, I decided to spend some time with you all," the communist poster boy said. "We (Communists) generally don't celebrate our birthdays, but it is the love and affection of the common people that made me participate in the programme."

The day was celebrated with songs, dances and speeches by eminent people. Boys and girls came with balloons and flowers, and a red bouquet with '96' written on it was handed over to Basu, who watched the function from his balcony.

Senior CPI(M) leader and state Transport Minister Subhas Chakraborty, former Lok Sabha speaker Somnath Chatterjee and state Fisheries Minister Kiranmoy Nanda were also present.

"The Communist movement was developed brick by brick in our state under his (Basu) able leadership. Give us strength so that we can present your ideology to our young generation," Chakraborty said in an emotion-choked voice.

"The people of West Bengal will never betray you and they'll not reject the path you have shown to them."

Born July 8, 1914, in Kolkata to a wealthy family, Basu took to Communism in London. On his return to India, he joined the the undivided Communist Party of India (CPI) and plunged into the Left movement.

Chatterjee said: "I am fortunate enough to have worked under him. I have walked by his side... Learnt from him. I have worked as per his directives. This huge gathering proves the respect he commands from the masses."

West Bengal Leftfront chairman and CPI(M) state secretary Biman Basu visited Basu at his residence on Wednesday evening to wish him.

Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee, chief of CPI(M)'s biter rival Trinamool Congress, sent West Bengal assembly opposition leader Partha Chattopadhyay to Basu's residence.

"He is a very senior leader. I went to his residence on his birthday last year. But this year I could not be present there as parliament session is on. Basu himself wants that I visit him on this precious day," she told reporters in New Delhi.

Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee also called up Basu to wish him.

Several newspapers came out with special supplements while many television channels beamed special programmes on his birthday.

Basu made his debut in electoral politics in 1946. He was elected to the state assembly 11 times, losing only once -- in the hugely controversial 1972 elections.

After the CPI split in 1964, he joined the CPI(M) and was elected to its central committee and politburo.

He was West Bengal chief minister from 1977 until he retired in late 2000 due to ill-health.

The last of the nine founding politburo members of CPI(M), Basu almost became India's prime minister in 1996 at the head of a centre-Left United Front government. But the CPI(M) vetoed the proposal, forcing him to dub the party's decision a "historical blunder".

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