Harkishan Singh Surjeet
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CPM’s master tactician Surjeet dies at 92
Stitching Together UPA Govt Was Marxist Leader’s Swansong
Akshaya Mukul | From the Archives of ‘‘The Times of India’’: 2008 August 2, 2008
New Delhi: Marxist leader Harkishan Singh Surjeet passed away on Friday following a massive heart attack. Surjeet, 92, was ailing for a long time.
In his death, the social justice set and Left have lost the one-man brigade who could be many things at once — a tactician, a backroom boy and a networker par excellence.
Sitaram Yechury remembers Surjeet handing him one of his first political leasons. A young Yechury had resigned as president of the JNU students’ union in 1977-1978, stating that the SFI-led union had lost the confidence of the general body.
Surjeet was politburo member incharge of Delhi. With party leaders unhappy at Yechury’s unilateral decision, Surjeet summoned him and told him it was not right to give up four union posts. Instead, he advised him to go for confidence vote and in case of loss, work towards winning the election. Yechury lost the confidence vote but won the subsequent election.
JNU was a small stage for Surjeet, born in 1916 to an Akali politician father and a non-Sikh mother. Post-Emergency, Surjeet, the political tactician — although he wanted to be a poet — honed his skills further. He began hobnobbing with anti-Jan Sangh, anti-Emergency groups. His moment came when Morarji Desai had to bow out on the dual membership issue. With Jan Sangh out, Surjeet promised CPM’s support to the Charan Singh government. It was the beginning of CPM’s non-BJP, non-Congress line, now called the third alternative. It also marked the Left’s entry into the national political mainstream.
Left’s outside support along with the BJP to the National Front government of V P Singh in 1989 continues to be debated. Surjeet was again at the forefront of the decision. It is he who had made it clear that Left would not support the government if BJP joined it. BJP had to fall in line.
Surjeet also had an uncanny ability to turn any situation into an opportunity. A phone call from PV Narasimha Rao to support Shankar Dayal Sharma’s candidature for President was one such moment. Surjeet wanted the then PM to promise a Vice-President of Left’s choice.
Rao’s caveat was that the candidate should be from Congress. Left suggested K R Narayanan, a name Rao was not enthusiastic about due to opposition from Karunakaran. Ultimately, Rao agreed and Surjeet walked away with the credit of installing the first dalit as the country’s V-P and later President.
Five years later, Surjeet was back again. The man single-handedly cobbled up an alliance — of warring political groups and ideological adversaries — to replace BJP’s 13-day government. Yet, his own party kept away from the government, even denying CPM the chance to give India its first Left PM.
Undeterred, Surjeet worked for the UF government. The story goes that when the then Congress president Sitaram Kesri withdrew support from the H D Deve Gowda government, Surjeet, somewhere in south, told Gowda not to resign and instead face Parliament. Gowda resigned in Parliament. Surjeet wanted Mulayam Singh Yadav to succeed him but before UF could decide, he went abroad. Yadav regrets Surjeet’s absence till this day.
Formation of the UPA government in 2004 turned out to be Surjeet’s swansong. He was instrumental in putting together a melange of colours — red, green, blue, white and many more — to ensure that BJP-led NDA sat in the Opposition benches.
Surjeet came to the communist movement with a formidable reputation. At home, he had seen his father being thrown out for being an Akali sympathiser. All Surjeet senior got was two acres of land by his prosperous father who had made a fortune working in Australia. In 1929, his father went away to the US, leaving behind his wife to take care of a young Surjeet. But his interests lay elsewhere. At 16, Surjeet, a part of Bhagat Singh’s Naujawan Bharat Sabha, was arrested for taking off the Union Jack and hoisting the tricolour at the Hoshiarpur court. Influenced by Bhagat Singh, Surjeet told judge his name was London Tod Singh.
He joined the CPI and became part of its politburo in 1954. When the CPM was formed in 1964, Surjeet, along with stalwarts like EMS Namboodiripad, A K Gopalan, P Sundarraya and Jyoti Basu, worked towards making the new party the principal Left party in the country.
Surjeet’s detractors believed he was slippery as an eel, too practical to be wedded to the Marxist ideology.
But AKG Bhavan, is full of endearing tales about Surjeet. How someone would jokingly call him the 11th Sikh Guru and others teased him as a Marxist Akali. But all remember his amazing capacity to work hard. Surjeet, as Yechury remembers, was also a large-hearted man who always helped a comrade in distress. Sometimes a torn shoe would get replaced and at other times, as Prakash and Brinda Karat will testify, he would organise wedding of underground comrades.