On Jyoti Basu’s Death Anniversary, Remembering the PM-in-Waiting

Today’s lumpen politicians in West Bengal will never understand the true value of Jyoti Basu, writes Abheek Barman.

3 min read
Jyoti Basu never gave a speech, he chatted. 

(This article was first published on 8 July 2015. It is being reposted from The Quint’s archives to mark Jyoti Basu’s death anniversary.)

Here’s the thing, I was born in the late 1960s, in Calcutta. Then seething with political unrest: thousands of migrants were streaming in from what would become Bangladesh. Our northern areas were inflamed by a movement named after the Naxalbari district, inflation was sky high, political unrest, which would lead to the Emergency of 1975 and 34 years of Communist rule, after 1977, was far away.

But my mother, now in her 70s, tells me that in those days of rationing and deprivation – a shortage economy – as we were taught later, the local grocer still got his supplies through the door and Sunilbabu, who ran the largest pharmacy in the area, always managed to smuggle a little bit of ‘baby food’ to our house. For me.

Well, all that ended in 1977, when the CPI(M), led by a dhoti-kurta wearing bhadralok from Calcutta stormed to power in the state. His name was Jyotirindra Basu – or as we learnt later, Jyoti Bose, or just Jyotibabu.

  • Jyoti Basu first became West Bengal’s Chief Minister in 1977, a position he retained for 23 years
  • He had a wry sense of humour.
  • ‘Historic blunder’ committed when Prakash Karat prevented him from becoming PM in 1996-97
  • Initially opposed to economic liberalisation, the comrade did alter his stance later on

‘Left Prime Minister, Almost!’

In 1926, Jyotibabu’s father, Nishikanta, a well-off doctor who had migrated to Calcutta from what is now Bangladesh, built a house in Hindustan Park. This is when I first saw Jyotibabu. The young Jyoti first went to the all-girls Loreto School before he migrated to St Xavier’s.

In the early 1980s and 1990s, when he lorded over Bengal, this physically tiny man – he could not have been taller than 5’ 4” – washed his own clothes and hung everything for drying on a rope in the verandah of his residence. Month after month, I saw him doing this.

His autobiography (translated into English by Surabhi Mukherjee and published 1997) begins with “I do not remember the house where I was born.”

Quarrels Over Hilsa

But he still had great memories of fighting over hilsa, or ilish fish portions, with his siblings. Unlike Jyotibabu, I am a ghoti from West Bengal, unlike his paternal origins from the East.

Jyotibabu, jailed so many times, walked fast. Like Indira Gandhi, he used to scamper up to the stage. I remember how Jyotibabu spoke in public. My Malayali and Tamil friends wax eloquent about EMS Namboodiripad and Karunuanidhi – and what great speakers they were.


Yes, sure. Even Narendra Modi can talk for hours and hold people captive.

Jyotibabu never spoke like that: not for him flights of fancy or big talk about policies and programmes. I first went to a Jyotibabu rally when I was nine-years-old: there was nothing else to do, homework was done and the rally was at Deshapriya Park, named after Chittranjan Das, barrister, successful defender of Aurobindo, educator and reformer. And next door.

Jyotibabu never gave a speech. He chatted. It was like an adda, which even your hated mother-in-law could enjoy. He also had a wry sense of humour, which no modern politician seems to have.

Calcutta’s (now Kolkata’s) lumpen, semi-literate politicians now will not understand the value of Jyotibabu.

Jyoti Basu’s protege Buddhadev Bhattacharjee who succeeded him. 
Jyoti Basu’s protege Buddhadev Bhattacharjee who succeeded him. 
(Photo: Reuters)

The Protector

But he ensured that not one shot was fired after Indira Gandhi’s assassination. We were given an early day off in school and the military deployment was awesome.

Jyotibabu also secured the lives of our parents in 1992, after which vicious rioting and bomb blasts shook most of India, including Bombay. By then I had left Calcutta. He saved us too in the aftermath of the Gujarat troubles of 2002.

A ‘historic blunder’ can be committed very seldom. It was done when Jyotibabu’s own colleagues, like Prakash Karat, stabbed him in the back to deny him the PM’s office in 1996-7.

India’s history would have been different – in many ways – had Jyotibabu been our PM in 1997. He was not doctrinaire, nor crass, or a sleeper on the job. He was a bhadralok, in the true sense of the term, who enjoyed Blue Label with friends and could have changed India for the better.


(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist)

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