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The Rediff Special /Surabhi Banerjee

'I don't blame the President at all. He was compelled by the force of circumstances'

Jyoti 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

The members of the Central Committee were immediately informed about the special session next morning to review their earlier decision in the light of the appeal by the United Front leaders. 'Nine members had left already,' says Basu. 'Nevertheless, we reconvened the meeting and we decided to take the views of the absentee members into account on record.'

The special meeting on May 14 stuck to its earlier stand. Discussions ensued until Basu called for votes, but the majority still opposed the proposal to join the government and make Basu the prime minister.

Deve Gowda Later, Basu met with leaders of the United Front and alternative names for the prime ministership were discussed. In the absence of Basu and V P Singh as candidates, G K Moopanar of the Tamil Maanila Congress and H D Deve Gowda were mooted as alternatives. Basu proposed Deve Gowda for the prime ministership and this was accepted. There was, however, one further appeal to Basu, from Deve Gowda himself in a letter on May 14.

He wrote:

At the outset, let me express my heartfelt thanks to you for suggesting my name to lead the Third Front government at the Centre. It shows your humility and fairness of mind. But in all fairness I should make it clear that you are the senior-most leader in the country who has led a coalition government in West Bengal successfully for the last eighteen years. This rich experience and the stature that you have attained as an unquestioned leader of the party in the country, made me come to this conclusion that you are the best and the right person to lead the nation under these very fluid and critical conditions.

I am sure that all non-BJP, non-Congress parties, with a secular bent of mind, will accept your leadership without any hesitation whatsoever. It was precisely because of this reason that we anonymously made a request to Central Committee of the Community Party to revise their decision so that it would facilitate your taking over as the prime minister of the country.

I assure you of mine and my party's support to run the government effectively under all circumstances. Once again I assure you that I would stand by you in all times of stress and strain and offer whenever necessary any little advice that I could in successfully tackling the difficult problems of this vast country.

Finally, I hope and trust that at this juncture, keeping in mind the paramount interest of the nation and the sentimental feelings of all secular parties of the country, the Central Committee of your party would revise the earlier decision and facilitate you to take over the government as prime minister to run it for the good of the country. To ensure this, I reiterate my full co-operation and my party's support....

Basu then called on President Shankar Dayal Sharma and briefed him on the position of the United Front. 'I told him,' said Basu, 'we do not have a clear majority but as the Congress is giving us two letters of support, we would request you to call us as soon as the letters reach you.' The President agreed. 'We came out at about 1:30 pm but there was an inordinate delay on the part of the Congress in sending us the letter assuring support to the UF government. It only reached the President as late as 3:55 pm. Given the delay the President called the BJP to form the government.'

'It was highly dramatic,' remarks Basu, 'but I don't blame the President at all. He was compelled by the force of circumstances.' In the event the BJP formed the government and then its Prime Minister Vajpayee had to suffer the indignity of being evicted from office in a fortnight, the shortest term any prime minister has served. The United Front took charge with H D Deve Gowda as prime minister.

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

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