Surjit Singh Barnala died at 91 on Saturday after a protracted illness in Chandigarh hospital. Survived by his wife and two sons, the former chief minister of Punjab had also served as governor of Tamil Nadu, Uttarakhand, Odisha and Andhra Pradesh.
A law graduate, Barnala was a key player in the Rajiv-Longowal accord of 1985 and remained CM from September 1985 to May 1987. He also took over as president of the Shiromani Akali Dal after the killing of Sant Harchand Singh Longowal in 1985.
Barnala, who came close to becoming vice-president of India, steered Punjab as CM in difficult times, when militancy was at its peak after Operation Bluestar in Golden Temple. The accord of 1985 that was signed with his active involvement remains a point of debate by experts, but it was a turning point in returning peace to turmoil-hit Punjab.
Born in Ateli village — in what is now Mahendergarh district of Haryana — on October 21 1925, he got his LLB degree from Lucknow University and became active in politics at the age of 27, when he contested the Punjab assembly polls in 1952. In 1969, he became education minister in the Gurnam Singh-led government and was instrumental in setting up Guru Nanak Dev University in Amritsar.
In the late 1970s, his sudden political rise took him to the Union cabinet as agriculture minister after he got elected to Parliament from Sangrur.
If one looks at his biodata, he had a dazzling career, but political experts say he committed two “historic lapses” that would remain etched in Punjab’s history.
The entry of police into Golden Temple during his term as Punjab CM in April 1987, and his failure to keep the promise of resigning as CM when Chandigarh was not transferred to Punjab as capital in January 1986, pushed Barnala to the margins. And he could never really re-emerge on the state’s political and mainstream Akali Dal scene, despite having a earned a good name for himself on the national front.
He fell out with Parkash Singh Badal (now Punjab CM) and the then president of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), Gurcharan Singh Tohra. Protesting against the entry of police into Golden Temple, Badal detached himself and formed a breakaway SAD (Badal). Capt Amarinder Singh, who is now Punjab Congress president, was agriculture minister in Barnala’s cabinet; and had resigned along with two other ministers over the police entry.
Then started the rise of the Badals, and Barnala — though he remained governor of different states and also Union minister between 1990 and 2011 — could not stage a comeback despite his wife and namesake, Surjit Kaur Barnala, having formed SAD (Longowal). That party has since been merged into the Congress.
“He would be remembered for doing something and for not doing something — both times he faltered,” said CM Badal’s adviser Harcharan Singh Bains, who worked with Barnala too.
Historian Gurdarshan Singh Dhillon remembered Barnala as a “weak” Akali leader “who succumbed to the Centre’s pressure”.
Despite having been on top positions, he could not nurture a legacy. His son Gaganjit Singh Barnala is a one-time MLA and despite having merged the SAD (Longowal) into the Congress in 2015, the family ha failed to get a ticket for the ensuing state elections.
He was ailing for some time, and passed away at the Post-Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER) in Chandigarh.