Jyoti Basu, who was the longest-serving democratically-elected communist leader in the world, has died in Kolkata. For students of international development in the North in the 21st century, the name of Jyoti Basu is all but unknown. It should be known. First elected to the legislature in 1946, before India's independence, as leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPM) in West Bengal he turned a slogan into a reality: land to the tiller.
In 1977 Basu's CPM was first among equals in the newly-elected Left Front Government in West Bengal, and Basu became Chief Minister. The Left Front under Basu's leadership implemented Operation Barga: it broke the concentration of land in the hands of a few rural oligarchs, offering tenurial security for sharecroppers and small plots of land to the landless. In so doing, the Left Front halted the rapid de-peasantization that had been taking place in West Bengal. The Left Front also implemented a decentralization of elected governance down to the local, or panchayat, level, allowing the peasantry to bypass the rural oligarchy and the lower rungs of the state bureaucracy, which was controlled by the rural elite in any case, and take more effective, more direct control of their lives. In effect, Basu was able to build a rural redoubt for a political party that in theory was supposed to be the party of the urban working class. Basu's accomplishment lead to 5 consecutive election victories for the Left Front, and Basu retired, undefeated, in 2000.
A very fair obituary of Jyoti Basu has been posted on The Guardian's website. You can read it at:
Pragmatic but radical change is possible within the prevailing social and economic system: Jyoti Basu, 1914 - 2010, showed this to be so.
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