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Old Man And The Sickle

Ninety may be no age to contest party posts. But the inscrutable Harkishen Singh Surjeet may, and win too. Strangely, the party doesn't need him, yet needs him.

Old Man And The Sickle
Old Man And The Sickle
At 90, Harkishen Singh Surjeet is frail and struggling. He is understandably absent-minded, does not recognise people he has known for long and often forgets details. He also writes controversial articles without consulting his party. And his association with shady politicians has often embarrassed his comrades. He is neither a scholar nor a mass leader. And yet, as the CPI(M) readies for its national congress early next year, the comrades are still not sure if they are ready to retire Surjeet who has been heading the party for the last 12 years.

The buzz in party circles is that the front-runner to the post of general secretary, the stoic and reserved Prakash Karat, along with the rest of the top leadership in the CPI(M) is quite happy to let Surjeet continue unless he himself insists on stepping down. It suits the comrades to have the grand old veteran as an ornamental figure at the top, almost like a field marshal, while they run the party.

It is no secret that Karat is the most influential leader in the CPI(M)whose writ runs on most tactical and ideological issues. When the question of whether the party should join the Manmohan Singh government was to be resolved, it was clear that Karat, who represents the powerful Kerala and West Bengal groups in the politburo, would have the last word.

So, while Surjeet, and even Jyoti Basu, strongly argued in favour of joining the government, the politburo shot it down just as Karat had decreed. This would have been a strong rebuff to anyone but despite his age and seniority, Surjeet is not the one to let such things upset him. He pretended as if nothing had happened and that it was normal for the party to reject his suggestions. For popular consumption, this was his take on the entire episode: "The party decided against it. What do you mean by my personal view? We take collective decisions in the CPI(M). We have no alliance with the Congress. We are only supporting them from outside." This was a U-turn he executed totally unfazed.

No one expects Surjeet to run the CPI(M) on a day-to-day basis given his age and health. So, though he diligently comes to the party office, his main task is to meet visitors. He listens to their woes—be it a Vaiko from Chennai or a farmer from Patiala—and offers his advice in a barely audible voice. Along the way, he could bungle here and there, like mistaking a senior party member for the canteenwallah and ordering him to get tea. No one takes such faux pas amiss. It is the done thing at the party headquarters to quietly indulge him.

Surjeet is allowed a lot of mistakes for which the other comrades are regularly taken to task by this strictly regimented party. A number of his senior party colleagues were not amused when he named officials to be removed from government institutions in an article he wrote on "detoxification" for the party journal, People's Democracy. Critics felt he was personalising a largely ideological and political issue. But no one thought it fit to broach the topic with Surjeet. The party normally does not take too kindly to such slips and even senior leaders are strongly reprimanded. For instance, Somnath Chatterji had to face the music when he told a TV reporter that Sonia is refusing to be the PM because her children probably have reservations about it.

But Pappaji, as Surjeet is fondly called, gets away with a lot. The secret of why the hard-boiled Marxists from Kerala and West Bengal continue to look up to this wily Sikh from Punjab lies in coalition politics. So while they cringe and raise eyebrows when Pappaji ferries an uninvited Amar Singh to Sonia Gandhi's party, the inversely snobbish comrades are not above acknowledging that they need him to hobnob with the likes of Laloo Prasad, Mulayam Singh, Amar Singh, Karunanidhi etc.It is a skill that eludes most members of the politburo and which Surjeet has in abundance.He also has considerable levels of patience and can pursue an issue for weeks without giving up. Which is why he is chosen to resolve complicated coalition problems which most Left leaders would give up on.

He is, however, careful to emphasise that his links are with "genuine" politicians. In plain words, with Mulayam and not with his lieutenant although it is no secret that Amar Singh paid obeisance at Surjeet's door almost every day when the upa was being cobbled together. "This is my temple. I have come to pay homage," he told journalists outside Surjeet's residence soon after the election results were out. Surjeet, on the other hand, told this reporter: "I have met him (Amar Singh) a couple of times as Mulayam's representative. We believe the Samajwadi Party is secular and an important player in the fight against a fascist party like the BJP. Apart from that, I have no links with Amar Singh or anybody else."

But then he does interact with the Akalis and various other Sikh groups. Those who want to meet him can get time if they turn up at his residence. Because of his accessibility many shades of politicians turn to him.

The issue of his retirement has not been discussed formally by the party. But it is largely believed that a repeat of the events in the last national congress is again likely in the upcoming party meet. "At that time Surjeet was not too keen on continuing himself but it was decided that he should. The same thing may well happen this time because no one wants him to quit," a member of the central committee told Outlook.

While comparisons are invariably made between Surjeet and his illustrious predecessor, E.M.S. Namboodiripad, the rank and file have no illusions about their leader's scholarly credentials. Senior partymen, however, are quick to point out that despite his limitations vis-a-vis political theory, Surjeet has been able to clearly assess the prevailing mood—especially post-Babri mosque demolition—and make tactical alliances even with their sworn enemy, the Congress. According to Aditya Nigam of the Centre for Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), who's had a two-decade-long association with the CPI(M), Surjeet's flexibility is a great asset in a party dominated by people who either represent regional interests or are too obsessed with economic issues. "To a lot of people in the media, he is this mischievous Sikh who hangs out with wheeler-dealers. But his role is far more complex. Surjeet is heading the party in an era where the Left has to take into account the growing threat of communalism, make alliances accordingly and balance it out with the party's interests," Nigam points out. This is a view that many Left leaders endorse.

So, says a senior leader, while Surjeet enjoys hobnobbing with people the other comrades would not like to be even seen with, he is also instrumental in getting the party around to accepting the Congress as a lesser enemy than the BJP. "This may sound easy to outsiders but the fact is that till the late nineties, the CPI(M)'s official position was still to be equidistant from both the Congress and the BJP. It is people like Surjeet and Jyoti Basu who have managed to mould the party to a different view," says Nigam.

Despite the many handicaps, Surjeet is clearly still the favourite to lead the party. As long as the Left is content with being restricted to Kerala and West Bengal and does not seriously want to expand its base, it hardly needs a visionary like an ems at the helm of affairs. For the time being, Pappaji does fit the bill. Almost perfectly, as there is no one else in the race.
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