THE Chanakya who failed? That is the question being asked about the man who, more than anyone else, was instrumental in putting together the United Front in 1996 despite stiff opposition from a section of his own party, the CPI(M). General secretary Harkishen Singh Surjeet has been attacked for his utterances over the past week which his critics, including those who have been sympathetic to the Left, claim have weakened the I.K. Gujral government, undermined the United Front and helped the BJP. Not necessarily in that order.
The immediate cause of heartburn was an interview Surjeet gave to a private TV channel in which he said Mulayam Singh Yadav would have made a better prime minister than Gujral; that Deve Gowda did more to project the United Front as a viable political alternative to the Congress and the BJP by taking its performance to the people; that his party was not too happy with Gujral's handling of the issue of corruption (read l'affaire Laloo); and that as a result, the coalition was not as united as it was before. Later, in an effort to assuage the feelings of the prime minister, he said the TV channel had subjectively edited the interview, thus changing the context in which he was speaking.
CPI(M) politburo member Prakash Karat says the controversy about Mulayam as a candidate for prime minister is unnecessary because Surjeet "was only explaining how and why the party came to adopt a particular point of view at the time of the Gowda government and this is a known fact".
Having said that, Karat emphasises the same points Surjeet did during his interview: "On the issue of corruption we have been very clear from the beginning—that there will be no compromise. And this includes any allegations, however motivated, about the controversy over the personal ledger accounts in West Bengal. The removal of CBI director Joginder Singh was not a step that would have encouraged the belief of the people in the resolve of the UF to fight corruption. And the stand the Left has taken against Laloo Yadav is in tune with our belief. That this is not something we are doing to embarrass anyone is also clear from our stand on the economic policy of the government. There are many aspects we do not agree with but we have respected the decision of the majority within the UF. We are taking these issues to the people though, just as we are going to the people against Laloo. And it is a fact that the United Front is not being projected as it was earlier. Gowda did a lot in that respect." These utterances are being seen in the context of the battle between the Congress and the Left on the nature as well as the future of the UF.
The message from the CPI(M), which Surjeet has been articulating, is clear: the Congress will not be allowed to run the government, nor will the Left willingly give the party the time it seeks to prepare itself for a mid-term election. As Karat notes: "We cannot ignore the fact that the Gowda government was brought down due to outside factors, not because of any problems in the Front." As to whether this would help the BJP, the CPI(M) says the "best way to help the BJP would be to compromise on the issue of corruption".
That Surjeet is now speaking in the language of the hardliners in his party—who had opposed the CPI(M) joining the UF government and the move to instal Jyoti Basu as prime minister in 1996—is ironical. But it is not completely unexpected. From the moment he failed to convince his party to join the UF ministry—which would have been a logical culmination of his efforts—for the CPI(M) the concept of the UF became a tactical rather than a political stand. And as an increasingly aggressive Congress has started demanding and getting its pound of flesh from the coalition over the past four months, the CPI(M) is clear that the Left needs to protect its own identity and distance itself from the pro-Congress tilt of some UF leaders. And since Surjeet is the party general secretary, it is only natural that he takes the lead in this endeavour.
THEN there is the undeniable fact that Surjeet, in the words of a senior Left Front leader, "is upset with the loss of his position as the chief political strategist and advisor to the PM"—a position he enjoyed during the Gowda regime. The assessment within the Left is that it is not a personal thing as much as it is a negation of the policies and tactics that the Surjeet-Gowda combination was pursuing: to project the UF as a convincing alternative with an eye on the future; to take a hard line against Congress attempts to become the real power behind the throne via the high-risk policy of emphasising that the Congress is supporting the coalition because it actually doesn't have a choice; and to gather the "secular, progressive" support around the UF to fight the BJP.
But a scheming Sitaram Kesri put an end to that. Says a Union minister: "What Surjeet did not count on was the speed with which Kesri took control of the Congress and put paid to these plans. And why not? After all, the Congress as a political party, whatever our opinion about it, has the right to protect and further its own interests and what you call the pro-Congress elements within the UF understand this." The fact that Gujral, like many others in the coalition, has come around to the view that the Congress cannot be taken head-on has undoubtedly compromised Surjeet's position within his own party. Which is adamant, as is Surjeet for that matter, that both the BJP and the Congress have to be fought with equal gusto. Sources point out that not only is Gujral not in perfect harmony with Surjeet's view of what should be done, but is not averse to playing the Congress against Surjeet.
Essentially, Surjeet's predicament stems from the failure of some UF constituents to resist Congress attempts to wean them away, the need to fight the BJP simultaneously, disenchantment within his own party and his declining power to set the agenda.
So, when E.M.S. Namboodiripad writes, "Gujral seems inclined to make the UF abandon its basic position with regard to the struggle against corruption and other crimes which Laloo, like other bourgeois leaders, has been charged with", Surjeet's ability to nudge the UF in the direction he would like is eroded even further. The fact that Sur-jeet himself seems to agree with this assessment, judging from his tone and tenor, makes his position as master-strategist, Chanakya if you like, even more untenable. And the dichotomy between intent (to prevent the Congress from becoming dominant over the coalition) and effect (strengthening the BJP) even more pronounced.