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