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Sardar of Indian politics

In a journey that started 92 years ago from Bandlana village in Jallandhar, Surjeet evolved from being a child revolutionary to a Marxist-anarchist to the firm anchor of a disparate coalition, report VK George & Jatin Gandhi.

india Updated: Aug 01, 2008 23:40 IST

When Harkishan Singh Surjeet became general secretary of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) in 1992, the Soviet Union had collapsed and communism’s obituaries had been penned. India was embracing global capitalism and its polity — driven by caste and religion — was in turbulence.

By the time Surjeet bowed out of active politics, in 2005, his party had influenced it far more disproportionately than its strength and spread.

The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government — that Surjeet played a key role in cobbling together — survived primarily on Left support and the frail, old communist was the Sardar of India’s coalitions.

Surjeet navigated the turbulence better than many. In 1989, he, along with Jyoti Basu, argued for the Left’s cooperation with VP Singh’s Janata Dal, which was allied with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). This led to the replacement of Rajiv Gandhi with Singh as prime minister.

Once the Congress slid into what seemed like a freefall, and the BJP was on the ascendant, Surjeet mobilised regional parties into a Third Front and persuaded the Congress to support it. When the Third Front failed, Surjeet bet on the Congress, rallying regional parties around it.

Ahead of the 2004 Lok Sabha results, Surjeet declared there were “only two fronts”, ruling out any possibility of Left support to another experiment. When Sonia Gandhi came under attack for her foreign origins, Surjeet declared that the “only criteria in a democracy is winning votes”. Surjeet turned out to be the ultimate arbiter. Even after his retirement as CPM general secretary, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh turned to him every time the comrades got combative.

By the end of 2005, Surjeet’s memory began to fade, but coalition politics was institutionalised and thriving.

Surjeet, though an integral part of power politics, did not lose the common touch. “He was a practical man. He applied the march-separately-but-strike-together approach of Mao in the Indian context — first by ending the Congres’ monopoly and then by stopping the BJP’s ride,” said CPM politburo member Sitaram Yechury.

In a journey that started 92 years ago from Bandlana village in Jallandhar, Surjeet evolved from being a child revolutionary to a Marxist-anarchist to the firm anchor of a disparate coalition. At age 16, he went to jail for the first time, defiantly calling himself ‘London-Tod Singh, son of Guru Gobind Singh’, during the Independence struggle. Nearly a dozen youngsters from his village joined the Ghadar movement and the revolutionary zeal grew naturally in him.

At the beginning of his political career, Surjeet was drawn towards the Akalis, then the Congress and finally the Left after meeting Communist leaders in Lahore jail. Around Partition, he was among the first ones — even before the Akalis — to demand a separate Sikh state. Later, Surjeet admitted it was a mistake.

Not many know that ‘Surjeet’ is in fact a pen name he adopted because he wanted to be a poet. “He was a mediocre poet, but a committed communist,” said historian Dr Prem Singh, a long-time associate. His party did not grow much in his home state, but Surjeet did grow to national prominence. “He became a politburo member of the undivided Communist Party in 1954. The period between 1953 and 1964, when he headed the CPI's state unit, was among the most productive for the communist movement in Punjab,” recalls Dr Prem Singh.

As he rose within the state unit, Surjeet progressed from revolutionary to shrewd politician. “Surjeet would make mental notes of people’s strengths and weaknesses. Even his factionalism was in the interests of the movement, he would say,” said an associate.

That he was just a matriculate never came in the way of his leading a party of intellectuals “because he kept a low profile in the early years and made up for what he lacked in education through organisation skills”, added the associate.

That was perhaps what helped him when he succeeded an intellectual giant like EMS Namboodiripad as general secretary.