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The Rediff Special /Surabhi Banerjee

'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'

Joyti Basu 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.

In this extract from Basu's recent biography, Surabhi Banerjee reveals what really happened. A controversial decision that continues to convulse the CPI-M

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.

V P Singh 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?'

Surjeet Singh 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.

Mulayam Singh Yadav '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.'

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

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Jyoti Basu, continued

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