Indian Reformer Fights for States' Rights From the Fringe

As the leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in West Bengal state, Jyoti Basu is one of the country's most experienced politicians.

For the past 19 years he has headed the world's longest-serving, democratically elected Communist government.

Winning a record five state elections in a row, Mr. Basu has earned a reputation as a skilled administrator and a charismatic leader. His party has chalked up an impressive record on land reform, devolving power to village councils and attracting domestic and foreign capital for industry and infrastructure development.

Basu's pragmatic approach to privatization and economic reform has made his state of West Bengal a role model for other Indian states eager to attract scarce investment.

Last month, the London-trained former attorney turned down an offer to become the leader of the new United Front coalition government, dismaying many politicians who believed that only he could unite the disparate forces that are attempting to rule India and keep the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party from power.

The veteran politician was interviewed in Calcutta by the Monitor. Some excerpts:

The recent elections gave regional parties more power than ever before. Will that mean more power to states?

We are telling this new government that this has to be part of their program.

We want decentralized power, and we want a strong center. But there cannot be a strong center only with the military and the police and so on. You need the support of the states. We don't have this. We have centralized everything and, in a vast country like India, nothing happens. State governments are nearest the people, whichever party that is running them.

Do you see a stronger role for the regions as inevitable?

I think so. We want it to take place. But for this to happen the states need to be able to work together as well as with the center. It will result in a healthy competition among the bigger states. But in the smaller states, like those in the northeast, where we have tribal states, whoever is in the center ... the government has to help them.

Some say that [the] logical conclusion to this greater regionalism will be the breakup of India.... We won't break up, I'm sure of that. But there is a tendency in many areas [to] want to separate; they [think] this that will do them good.

But that is not correct, it will not do them good. What I am saying is that they must stay together. But you cannot stay together unless you get the confidence of the people, and the confidence of the people will come when the powers are decentralized.

India has tried coalition governments before and failed. What is different?

The political reality ... in India is that no party has a majority in power, so in any case there has to be a coalition. These people who have formed the coalition government have included the regional parties. In India, no more can you have one party. That is very, very clear.

You fought the election as part of the alliance that became the United Front. Now you are only supporting the government from the outside. Why is that?

We said we would do everything possible to bring about a Third Front [now the United Front]. We have a party program where we say that if we are not that strong, then we should not enter [into the government] but we should help this government. Even then we reconsidered the question when [the United Front] asked us to.

If this government falls apart, would you regret you didn't become prime minister when you had the chance?

It's not a question of myself. It's my party which decides such things.

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