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Mainstream, Vol XLV No 34

Tribute to Harkishan Singh Surjeet

Sunday 10 August 2008, by SC

In the afternoon of August 1, 2008 passed away in NOIDA’s Metro Hospital, former CPM General Secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet, 92, after a prolonged illness. Since he relinquished the post of party General Secretary in 2005 he had been ailing and due to ill-health and advanced age could not meaningfully contribute towards shaping the course of as well as effectively intervene in the country’s political developments to the detriment of the nation and its people at large.

This is not a rhetorical observation. Surjeet was among the few Communist leaders to have left an indelible imprint on the national polity, the others being P.C. Joshi, Ajoy Ghosh, S.A. Dange, Bhupesh Gupta, E.M.S. Namboodiripad. Others like Jyoti Basu, A.K. Gopalan, P. Sundarayya, P. Ramamurti, C. Rajeswara Rao, Bhowani Sen, C. Achutha Menon had doubtless contributed to the Communist Party’s development in different regions of the country but they didn’t contribute towards shaping national political events. And it can be stated without any exaggeration that apart from EMS, Surjeet was the only CPM leader to have a genuine national perspective and even here Surjeet was able to comprehend, far more than EMS or any other CPM leader, the complexities of the Hindi heartland. Though the CPM has failed to grow in either Punjab (from where he hailed) or the Hindi heartland, Surjeet’s contribution to the national polity was not commensurate with his party’s influence or sweep—the individual Surjeet’s stature and authority in national affairs far exceeded the CPM’s standing on the national plane.

He has been variously described as a ‘pragmatic politician’, a ‘Chanakya’ of Indian politics but there is not a shadow of doubt that he was a politician par excellence. Ever since Ajoy Ghosh, as the fourth General Secretary of the undivided CPI, brought him into prominence by being instrumental in his assumption of the post of Secretary of the Punjab party, he has played a crucial role in political developments first in Punjab and subsequently in the country (especially since the end of the Emergency regime in 1977). Initially he was close to all factions of the Akalis in Punjab which is why Indira Gandhi (and many others both within the communist movement and outside) used to characterise him as an ‘Akali Marxist’. This journalist was himself witness to Surjeet, the Marxist, playing the role of a mediator between different Akali factions—led by Badal and Tohra—in the late seventies,1978 to be precise, when the Akalis and the CPM were backing the Janata Party Government at the Centre.

During the July crisis in 1979 when the Morarji Desai Government fell and Charan Singh assumed power at the Centre there was a crisis in the CPM as well. Distinguished CPM MP Jyotirmoy Bosu threw his weight behind those in the party opposing the move by a strong segment (led by Surjeet and B.T. Ranadive) to withdraw support to Morarji Desai primarily because of his government’s anti-working class positions as reflected in the Industrial Relations Bill it was seeking to introduce and silence over the issue of dual membership (of the Janata Party and RSS) of the erstwhile Jana Sangh leaders that Socialist stalwarts like Madhu Limaye had raised within the Janata Party; Bosu’s argument was simple: by this move the CPM leadership was seeking to ensure the return of Indira Gandhi to power. Even Morarji as the PM contacted Jyoti Basu, who was then in London as the West Bengal CM, to enlist his support to save the Union Government by changing his party’s stand. However, Jyoti refused to oblige as he pleaded ignorance of the intricacies of national politics which, he had no hesitation ever in conceding, were best known to Surjeet. At that juncture Surjeet himself had assured this journalist that the CPM would remain steadfast in its opposition to the Morarji Government and the spectre of Indira’s return to power would not deter it from opposing the Janata Party administration since, as he explained, the CPM’s line of backing the then Central Government was ‘tactical’ unlike the CPI’s support to Indira Gandhi, during S.A. Dange’s stewardship of the party, that was ‘strategic’ both before and during the Emergency. The course of events showed that the Surjeet-Ranadive line prevailed over the West Bengal line during that crisis.

Thereafter Surjeet played a key role in building up the Third Front in the 1980s by relying on such personalities as Mulayam Singh Yadav of UP and N.T. Rama Rao of Andhra Pradesh even though it did not make much headway. During this period Surjeet was also in constant touch with Indira Gandhi through Pranab Mukherjee, the then Finance Minister, in helping the government tackle the challenge of Khalistani separatism in Punjab. Giani Zail Singh and Surjeet were the two pillars on which Indira developed her response to the Bhindranwale phenomenon whereas CPI leaders in Punjab—Darshan Singh Canadian (who fell prey to terrorists’ bullets) and Satyapal Dang—actively fought the Khalistani secessionists-cum-terrorists on the soil of Punjab.

In 1989 he was a pivot in the arrangement that helped the National Front to come to power with outside support from the Left and the BJP. But he did not at any point waver in the fight against the BJP’s brand of communalism when the need arose even at the cost of the NF Government led by V.P. Singh.

Surjeet and Chandra Shekhar were active in demanding Central rule in UP just prior to the Babri Masjid demolition by the Sangh Parivar in December 1992. Though the Centre took shelter behind the argument that there was no breakdown of law and order to invite President’s Rule in the State, it was confirmed by the turn of events that Surjeet was aware of the ground reality better than many others and, if his demand was accepted by the government, one of the greatest traumas for secularism in post-independence India would have been averted even if constitutional experts are of the considered opinion that the Constitution would not have permitted such a step on the part of the Centre.

Surjeet was the chief architect of the United Front Government that followed the end of the Congress Government led by P.V. Narasimha Rao in 1996. He was in favour of the CPM joining that government with Jyoti Basu as the PM but that move was scuttled by the majority of the party’s central leadership on the sterile argument that the CPM’s mere presence in the Ministry would not be able to influence policy. Subsequently Jyoti described it as a “historic blunder”; even if Surjeet did not make such a statement in public, he fully shared the view in private. However, if the party had allowed Jyoti to become the PM, it is reasonable to speculate that Surjeet would have, with his political acumen and foresight, played the most crucial role in guiding the PMO and in the circumstances it would have become exceedingly difficult for the Congress leadership to withdraw support to the UF Government. In that case Indian politics could have traversed a different trajectory.

After the BJP came to power as the head of the ruling NDA in 1998, Surjeet along with others contributed substantially to organisng a strong movement against the Narendra Modi Government responsible for the Gujarat carnage in 2002. He was active also in reviving a secular Third Front but did not in any way preclude any understanding with the Congress in the fight against communalism.

Surjeet in the main alongwith Jyoti Basu played a critical role in helping the Congress form the UPA Government in May 2004 by ensuring the Left’s support to the ruling coalition that would have been difficult in his absence. External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee has aptly described Surjeet and Jyoti Basu as the architects of the UPA Government. Observers are of the considered view that had Surjeet been politically agile and active the UPA-Left understanding would not have collapsed under the impact of the Indo-US nuclear deal and, even if there would have been a parting of ways between the two, it would not have led to the kind of bitterness one is witnessing at present. As for the current controversy surrounding the Lok Sabha Speaker, Surjeet would not have allowed it to snowball into such a big issue and, in any case, he would have amicably sorted out the matter such that Somnath Chatterjee’s expulsion from the CPM could have been eventually avoided. (Somnath’s presence at the Metro Hospital after the CPM leader’s demise and his spontaneous tribute to Surjeet were highly symbolic and meaningful.)

Such was Harkishan Singh Surjeet—his national perspective in Indian politics being attributed to the fact that he was, after all, a product of the freedom struggle; as a Communist he was imprisoned in 1942 at the time of Gandhiji’s “Do or Die” movement. And he was a person of rare foresight: at a seminar on economic reforms in 1992 he summarily rejected the idea of referring to China’s economic reforms in the final resolution; his argument was—we have to wage our own battle without bringing in China as that would complicate matters. He was a lifelong friend of the Mainstream family having enjoyed N.C.’s close association since the fifties, that is, the days of Ajoy Ghosh’s stewardship of the CPI. On a personal note one could disclose that in the recent past he had complimented this journalist for bringing out one of the best among the contemporary periodicals in terms of political content; and this despite its fiercely independent positions on different issues.

This was Surjeet—a person of broad vision (far different from the sectarian diehards in the CPM leadership) who confided to several friends in private that he was in essence carrying forward the P.C. Joshi legacy in the national political arena.

The loss for the polity in general following his departure is indeed irreparable in every sense of the word.

As a token of our tribute to the departed leader, we reproduce here an article Surjeet wrote for the Mainstream Annual 1989; written in a situation far different from the one prevailing today it, however, reveals his commitment to the fight against communalism despite the complexities of the political scene. We are also reproducing, with due acknolwedgement, two tributes recently published in The Indian Express.

S.C.

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