* Basu's death could damage communist unity
* Tough election for leftists next year in West Bengal
(Adds huge crowds, prime minister comment)
By Sujoy Dhar
KOLKATA, India, Jan 17 Jyoti Basu, the patriarch
of Indian communism whose pragmatic politics twice brought him
close to becoming prime minister, died on Sunday. He was 95.
Basu's death is seen as a possible blow to unity among a
disparate group of communists facing a tough election next year
in the eastern state of West Bengal, a traditional leftist
"Jyoti Basu played the role of the elderly patriarch whose
more mature, considered view and ability to retain the broad
base of support were very important," political analyst Mahesh
Rangarajan told Reuters.
Basu died from multiple organ failure at a city hospital,
where tens of thousands of his admirers gathered, many
teary-eyed. Others raised their hands in a Soviet-style salute
as Basu's body was carried in a hearse to a city mortuary.
"The passing away of Basu from the scene marks the end of an
era in the annals of Indian politics," India's Prime Minister
Manmohan Singh said in a statement.
A London-trained barrister, Basu entered politics as a union
leader and gained fame leading West Bengal for almost a quarter
century, the longest-serving chief minister in Indian political
history. He stepped down in 2000 because of failing health.
He led the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) which is
at the head of a ruling leftist coalition in West Bengal and
which faces an election next year amid sliding popularity.
While Basu's rule was credited with bringing stability to
West Bengal, he was blamed for allowing the economy to stagnate,
often at the hands of militant trade unions opposing even the
use of computers in government offices for fear of job losses.
Basu retired from active politics a decade ago, but his
towering stature retained its unifying influence among the
leftist groups and he continued to play the role of crisis
manager and political arbitrator.
Kshiti Goswami, a West Bengal minister and a coalition ally,
said it would be difficult to maintain the leftist coalition
without the charismatic leader.
Basu's party and its allies, despite their long years in
power, have often differed over policy issues such as acquiring
farmland for industry as the communists struggle with the
question of economic reforms to keep pace with rest of India.
But Basu's brand of liberal communism ensured wide
acceptability for him and he was offered the job of prime
minister twice in 1996, but he had to decline because of
opposition from within his party.
Basu described that decision as an "historic blunder" in an
open criticism of a section of his party's dogmatic ideologues.
His staid and sometimes brusque style earned him the
sobriquet of "a field marshal in a gentleman's garb". Mostly
seen in a flowing white shirt and Indian wraparound, he was the
communists' star poll campaigner, his personal charisma often
drawing a million supporters to his public meetings.
(Writing by Krittivas Mukherjee; editing by Philippa Fletcher)