Few leaders in Punjab’s chequered history of the ’80s would invite such intense debate as former chief minister Sardar Surjit Singh Barnala would. Was he a visionary who strayed into a politics — a painter who used his brush on the wrong canvas? Or, was he the right man at the wrong time?
Should he be looked at as a genuine moderate whose political fortunes did not match the temper of the age nor of the people he was asked to lead? Or, was he one of those who first created a glorious opportunity in history, both for himself and for his state and community, and possibly even for his country, but then flinched at the hour of reckoning and refused to live up to that opportunity?
Opinions will always vary, often violently. It is hard to paint him entirely in a single colour and, much as his own temper and his style of paintings did, the colour one uses for him will have to be dipped in ink of soft hues. As one of the powerful Akali trinity of Parkash Singh Badal, Gurcharan Singh Tohra and himself, Barnala was the quietest and the most low-profile of the lot, and yet it was he who ended up with the harshest menu on his plate.
He could have chosen the honourable way of turning down a few of such assignments which did not agree with his temperament, but therein lies the whole tale of what he could have achieved and what he ended up not achieving.
Unfortunately for Barnala, his real place in history will be judged solely by his tenure as chief minister of Punjab at one of the most troubled times the state has ever faced. The Centre backed him to take on the ideological extreme in Sikh politics. Even if the choice had not been questionable, the fact that the Centre never gave him the political ammunition to carry forward the agenda of sanity is a significant part of the story of Barnala’s failure to deliver.
But, to most Sikhs, his failure was one personal inability to look the tough moment in the eye.
Three issues defined that failure. One was his eventual refusal to resign in the wake of non-transfer of Chandigarh on January 26, 1986. The Centre had clearly backstabbed him and that was the moment for him to stand up and cry foul. Until two days before the date, Barnala appeared convinced that “there is no point in my staying as CM if the accord that got us here is not implemented in a sacred spriit”.
Something happened — hectic calls from Rajiv Gandhi assuring Barnala that the transfer was only being delayed by a few weeks, not withheld. Arun Nehru came huffing in, followed by Buta Singh. Eventually, it all came down to his trusting the word of a Prime Minister of India. He did.
That proved his undoing and Punjab’s tragedy.
The second hour came when he was asked to decide between sending the police into the Goden Temple or risk angering the national opinion. In the end, his act was seen as vindicating Operation Bluestar that he has himself had opposed. As on January 26 the year before, he had the option of making a political statement by resigning in protest — this time against his own people. He could have argued that forces within the community were sabotaging a peaceful way out of the conflict which had already cost thousands of Sikh lives.
Once again, he blinked.
He would be judged harshly for both these acts — plus a third, not taking the popular duo of Parkash Singh Badal and Gurcharan Singh Tohra along.
In the end, he was perhaps asked to lead the state at the wrong time. A peaceful man of modest temperament and moderate language, he was told to control fires that were too harsh for his skin.
His greatest achievement was that he spoke the right script for his community — the language of peace with dignity. But his failure lies in his inability to bring up the dignity part in that equation. The things he spoke are still relevant — their relevance marred by his inability to lend them meat with his own flesh. Therein lies a lesson for all Sikh leaders, and for the country.
(The writer, who was media adviser to Surjit Singh Barnala during his stint as Punjab CM, is now adviser on national affairs and media to CM Parkash Singh Badal)