Harkishan Singh Bassi changed his surname to ‘Surjeet’ while trying his hand writing poetry in his youth. The ‘poetic’ name would stick for the man who would spend the rest of his life living and breathing politics.
Surjeet lived the simple life. He was his own secretary, attending phone calls and keeping a mental note of the visitors he expected over the day. If his predecessor as the CPI(M) General Secretary E.M.S. Namboodiripad was fond of cashew nuts from Kerala, Surjeet relished sarson ka saag and jaggery from the farmlands of Punjab. He was prone to opening up to those who reached out to him in the Punjabi way, and this communist didn’t mind if anyone younger touched his feet.
Surjeet’s favourite preoccupation between 1996 and 2004 was to run rings around the BJP. His first real success came in 1996 when he played a key role in ensuring the BJP’s post-poll isolation that forced Atal Bihari Vajpayee to step down after a 13-day stint. But the CPI(M)’s refusal to entertain the United Front’s choice of Jyoti Basu as PM was a chastening experience.
The gainers eventually were HD Deve Gowda and IK Gujral, for whom Surjeet didn't much care but went along with the consensus after the then Congress President, Sitaram Kesri, caused the Karnataka strongman’s exit from the PMO. Left to himself, Surjeet would have anointed the Samajwadi Party’s Mulayam Singh in Deve Gowda’s place. But that wasn’t to be. “I'm not sure whether [Gujral] can make his wife vote for him,” he would say in private conversations.
The failure of the UF experiment set the stage for Vajpayee’s return as PM on March 19, 1998, the very day ‘EMS’, Surjeet’s valued comrade at the CPI(M) high table died. The tragedy had its own ideological twist. With Surjeet and Jyoti Basu, EMS constituted the Trinity that had fervently backed the CPI(M)’s participation in the government two years ago. But even their combined weight couldn't pull off a majority in the CPI(M) Central Committee, which persisted with the old party line against power-sharing without the legislative strength to influence policy.
The opportunity to again bundle out the BJP came Surjeet’s way some 13 months later in 1999. Minus the crucial numbers that could only have come from Mulayam Singh, he had almost sewed up the deal for the Congress. Surjeet had told me about a conversation he had with Sonia Gandhi when she called on him on her own at his Teen Murti Lane bungalow on a languid April afternoon. After offering her a wooden chair they talked in his “resting room where there was the only air-conditioner”.
He had asked Sonia not to pay attention to Congress canards of a “communist blackmail” — something that the Prakash Karat-led CPI(M) didn’t pay heed to and could have explained why the PM singled out Surjeet along with Basu for praise in his speech during the recent confidence vote after the Left withdrew support. “We’d not create any problems. Just help us justify our support to your party by sparing a few thousand crore rupees in the Budget for anti-poverty programmes. That’ll also help you acquire the pro-poor image of your mother-in-law,” Surjeet told Sonia.
He would fondly recount to friends Jawaharlal Nehru’s response to Acharya Kriplani’s objections to Panditji’s dalliances with the Left. Nehru had told Kriplani “Yeh lal jhanda Congress ko garibon key kareeb laata hai.” (This red flag brings the Congress close to the poor.)
In the late 1980s Surjeet had ‘advised’ Zail Singh amid speculation that the President was contemplating the dismissal of the Rajiv Gandhi government. As former MP B.S. Ramoowalia (who, for years, read out the newspapers to Surjeet in view of his failing eyesight) recalled: “He telephoned the President in my presence, cautioning him to remain within the Constitutional limits.” One wonders whether Sonia knows of this phone call.
Surjeet’s 1999 plan to install a secular government was foiled by Mulayam Yadav, his ‘trusted friend’, who refused to oblige the Congress. Yadav again let him down in the 2002 presidential polls by teaming up with the BJP to elect A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, who also got the Congress’s last-minute support. Surjeet was livid with Mulayam and almost turned him out of his house when he came to meet him later. “There can be no compromise on such issues,” he had protested.
They patched up with the passage of time and in 2004, Surjeet escorted Mulayam Yadav’s confidante, Amar Singh, to a dinner Sonia Gandhi had hosted for UPA allies before government formation. The Congress President’s reception deeply upset Singh leading to a long spell of cold relations between the SP and the Congress.
The wheel came full circle at Manmohan Singh’s dinner on May 23 this year to mark the UPA’s four years in office. Singh was a prominent invitee. “It’s ironic that Surjeet is battling for life and I’m at this dinner,” he had said. “Today’s invite to our party proves him right in retrospect.”
As does the utter irony of the tectonic shifts — the withdrawal of the Left and the SP filling that ‘vacuum’ — that took place before the trust vote in Parliament.