WHEN the UF government was enthroned in 1996, the architect-in-chief of the coalition, Harkishen Singh Surjeet, was adamant that Punjab—more specifically the Sikh community—be represented in the Cabinet. Everybody concurred. And since the 14-party front did not have a Sikh in its midst, Surjeet pulled B.S. Ramoowalia out of his hat. In fact, before the general elections, Surjeet's assiduous attempts to rope the moderate Akalis led by Prakash Singh Badal into the UF had come a cropper.
And Surjeet's focus on Sikh politics has continued. During the meeting of the core committee of the United Front to discuss the coalition's candidate for vice-president, Surjeet dropped his bombshell.
Everybody was expressing enthusiasm over the candidature of the Andhra Pradesh governor Krishan Kant—which was proposed by Chandrababu Naidu in consultation with both the CPI and CPI(M). Suddenly Surjeet interrupted, saying that since the BJP-Akali Dal combine had proposed S.S. Barnala's name, the UF too must have a Sikh candidate, at least in its shortlist. According to a UF source present at the meeting, "even as we sat there stunned, Surjeet continued in the same vein and suggested the name of Justice (retd) Kuldeep Singh of the Supreme Court". Surjeet was finally told this was unacceptable and, according to some, went into a "bit of a sulk" as a result.
Then again, his reported intervention on behalf of the Sikh community a couple of weeks ago threatened to create another scandal. Sources claim that Muslim leaders had approached senior coalition members to complain that funds from the Rs 500 crore Maulana Azad Education Trust would reportedly also be used for the Sikhs. Says one of the UF leaders: "I got in touch with the PM and told him that since the Muslims were already lagging behind in modern education, it would be unfair to divert funds. The PM told me that when he asked Ramoowalia about it, he indicated that Surjeet had requested the diversion!" It is nobody's case in the Left that Surjeet's obsession with Sikh, and Punjab, politics is anything but an attempt to "widen the base of the Left and progressive forces". "We do not believe in the politics of personality," says Karat. But there does seem to be a personal element in Surjeet's forays: the need to be accepted as a major player in the Sikh community. Even if it is for a 'higher aim'.