Red veteran may rule India

Tim McGirk on Jyoti Basu, the octogenarian Calcutta Communist who could take power in New Delhi
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One of the last Communist leaders left alive in the world, 80- year-old Jyoti Basu, may just emerge as the next prime minister of India.

Before India's inconclusive general elections, few rated Mr Basu's chances above zero. The octogenarian Marxist, whose devotees still keep photos of Stalin and Lenin garlanded like gods with marigolds at the party headquarters in Calcutta, seems the unlikeliest of all candidates to run a boisterous democracy of 920 million Indians.

After all, India has jettisoned over 40 years of Soviet-style socialism in favour of Coca-Cola, Kentucky Fried Chicken and free-market capitalism. Its factories and bureaucracy had rusted out. And even Mr Basu, who mischievously renamed the Calcutta address of the American consulate as Ho Chi Minh street, was forced to swallow his Yankee-phobia and go to Washington to seek investment for West Bengal, where he has ruled as chief minister for 19 years.

A skilled practitioner of realpolitik and a graduate of the London School of Economics, Mr Basu's radicalism began early. As a student at one of the privileged Calcutta Catholic schools during the British colonial days, Mr Basu led his friends on a daytime raid of the posh, whites-only Calcutta Club. Fully clothed, they splashed merrily in the swimming pool until the Bengali radicals were fished out and arrested.

The youthful prankster turned into an autocratic Marxist. None the less, the diminutive Mr Basu won respect for bringing order and development to West Bengal. "Everybody wants me to be leader," he joked recently. "I've even had calls from Bangladesh asking me to run things there."

Mr Basu's Communist Party of India (Marxist) belongs to a ragbag assortment of small regional parties, socialists and other Communists (without the Marxist bracket behind their name), as well as those parties which champion the rights of India's Muslim minority and lower-caste Indians who are trying to escape out from under the bottom of Hinduism's complex hierarchy. Known as the National Front-Left Front (NF-LF), this alliance is set to win around 160 seats of the 543 in the Lok Sabha when the final tally is made.

The leftists will not be the first choice of President Shanker Dayal Sharma to form India's next government. Mr Basu and his NF-LF colleagues are in second place behind the right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), but they, too, are nowhere near a majority.

The Indian democratic process now lurches into its seamiest stage, with all parties using every means of persuasion, bribes included, to coax over borderline MPs for a majority. One newspaper reported that a New Delhi five-star hotel was keeping many of its rooms open, expecting a horde of industrialists from Bombay, Madras and Calcutta who will bring cash for the three main parties - the BJP, the NF-LF and the ousted Congress (I) Party of Narasimha Rao - to lure the smaller regional groupings and independent MPs. The businessmen who bet on the winning party are paid back later with government contracts.

Even though the BJP swept the most parliamentary seats, its leader, Atal Behari Vajpayee, could find it hard to lure coalition partners. Mr Vajpayee himself may be a liberal, but the BJP, with its upper-crust Brahmin leadership, cannot shake its old image of Muslim-bashers who also want to keep lower- caste Hindus in their place.

In any other country, an old Marxist like Mr Basu would be an anachronism. But India's poverty and social injustices - especially in the countryside, where untouchables cannot "pollute" the village well by drinking from it or worship inside temples - mean a strong, progressive current pulls at the country. At the farthest extreme are the Naxalites, armed gangs of Maoist revolutionaries in Bihar, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh, who blow up police stations and wage war against feudal landlords.

Even the less radical leftists still have residual suspicions against capitalism and the multi-national companies who are now eyeing India's growing middle-class. Protesting mobs shut down Kentucky Fried Chicken's outlet in Bangalore, forcing McDonald's to scale down the razzmatazz of its own expected Indian launch. Businessmen who have sold the Chinese and the Russians on burgers and Coke without any hitch are perplexed by the Indians' ability to turn a quick snack into a dreaded cultural icon.

Many foreign investors who viewed India as the new economic frontier will have second thoughts if the leftists take power. Whether led by Mr Basu or another contender within the combine, an NF-LF government might slow down or even halt the old Congress government's economic reforms. The leftists would be unlikely to risk the trade unions' wrath by going ahead with plans to close down antiquated state-run industries. The Bombay stock exchange has fallen several points amid post-election jitters.

The NF-LF can be a quarrelsome bunch, and its first real test of unity will be whether it can agree on a prime ministerial candidate. "It has more leaders than MPs." joked one columnist. Among others who might tussle with Mr Basu is former prime minister VP Singh. A brilliant, though somewhat eccentric statesman (from a royal family, he gave away his land to peasants), Mr Singh swears he will not run for prime minister until 1999, because he is fighting cancer. But he might still allow himself to be coaxed into taking the job.

Another left-wing heavyweight is the former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Mulayam Singh Yadav, an ex-wrestler who has defended the state's large Muslim community against rising Hindu fundamentalism. Yet he is an unabashed opportunist.

He fielded Phoolan Devi, the "Bandit Queen", in one constituency because she is famous for reportedly urging her bandits to massacre 22 upper-class villagers who earlier had gang-raped her. She is expected to win in Mirzapur district because its lower-caste Hindus can identify with her desire to strike back against the upper castes who dominate Indian rural life.

Clearly, too often in Indian politics, nowadays, it is not a matter of right or wrong but of revenge.