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A power vacuum cleaner - Hindustan Times

VNN ()
March 8, 1998

Title: A power vacuum cleaner
Author: VNN
Publication: Hindustan Times
Date: March 8, 1998

Power, like nature, abhors a vacuum. Democracy, on the other
hand, tries to keep areas of vacuum in the power structure so
that authority has restraints and the vacant space is occupied by
persons and institutions which would hold' rulers accountable to
them and answerable to the nation.

Over the past few decades, this vacant space in Indian democracy
- the power vacuum - has been filled by groups and individuals
who can be broadly classified as extra-constitutional authorities
and power brokers. Further subdivisions of these broad categories
of power wielders would reveal dynasts (Sanjay Gandhi, Sonia
Gandhi), factotums (M. 0. Mathai, R. K. Dhawan and V. George),
political brokers (Amar Singh, Jayant Malhotra) and election-shy
apparatchiks (Moopanar, Harkishen Singh Surjeet).

Over the past decade, Indian politics has taken a decisive turn
towards the abolition of accountability in public life, generally
called criminalisation of politics accompanied by politicisation
of the administration. It has broken several comfortable nexuses
in the polity - that of politics with crime, of industry with
bureaucracy, of politics with the police, of government with
insurgency, etc. Every such nexus in the past involved a broker,
an intermediary, who fixed things and oiled the process of
illegitimate prosperity and authority. The abolition of
accountability ended all that smug partnerships; the criminals
moved into politics and brokers became parliamentarians and

For the past 15 years, the one man who has filled the power
vacuum with the smoothness of an eel, the suppleness of a gymnast
and an effectiveness in political manipulation without the burden
of a mass base or political backing unmatched by any is Harkishen
Singh Surjeet, the octogenarian General Secretary of the
Communist Party of India (Marxist).

Twenty-two years ago when I first came to Punjab, Harkishen
Surjeet was a hero and an idol to me, as he was to a whole
generation of ideologically-inclined youth in the State. He was
seen as an unwavering ideologue on the side of the poor, an
antiestablishment icon for itinerant rebels in society, a clean
politician untainted by power or office and a man of steel
hardened by a life of struggles that often saw him spend spells
in jail. Hearing him talk of deological struggle=94, 'national
movement", he cause=94, one did not mind the effusion of jargon
unaccompanied by substance or wit because he was a simple and
honest man deeply sensitive to people's problems.

But my years in Chandigarh revealed other facets. He has a
sprawling farm house in his village in Hoshiarpur district with
all modern gadgets. His relatives are settled in North America,
prosperous in business. And very early in his political life, he
acquired the habit of being here, there and anywhere. He was the
chief of Jalandhar City Congress who hobnobbed with the Ghadar
Party and the Akali Dal. As Congress leader he carried the
Communist Red Flag and Acharya Kripalani upbraided him for his
"double dealings". Surjeet's present day response to such an
accusation would in all probability be a denial . There are far
too many dealings he indulges in that he could hardly be called a

For a person who disdained power and office for most of his adult
life, Surjeet's - a pen-name when he dabbled in poetry before
giving it (poetry not the name) up in favour of whole-time
politicking - recent role as an influential power broker in Delhi
and the kingmaker of 1996 would surprise old time friends and
admirers. But those in the know, are not surprised. Harkishen
Surjeet has always been a man with fingers in many pies and legs
in many camps. When the Communist Party split in the sixties,
Surjeet took his own time to decide whether he would stay in the
CPI or move to CPI-M.

The Punjab problem brought him close to Indira Gandhi, and later,
to Rajiv Gandhi. Somehow, both Prime Ministers gave ear to him
and not to the Akalis effectively blocking the way of all
solutions for peace. Of the two famous non-resident Punjabis, I.
K. Gujral and Harkishen Surjeet, the former was positive and
constructive and hence had no influence on the government in
Delhi and the latter operated behind the scenes and wielded
enormous power.

Surjeet kept his liaison with Congress regimes through the Rao
phase and even kept in touch with Pranab Mukherjee, PVN and
Sitaram Kesri in facilitating the toppling of Deve Gowda and
bringing in Gujral. He was mainly responsible for the CPI-M
winning allies and procuring Lok Sabha seats in the states where
the party had no major standing - Andhra under TDP, Assam under
Mahanta, etc. His technique is to announce his intent as his
party's policy and then set about convincing colleagues. He tried
hard to change the CPI-M's declared stance - if the BJP is
cholera, the Congress is plague; both are deadly - and had failed
so far. Even this year his attempt to commit the UF to
supporting the Congress bombed both within his party and in parts
of the UF.

Say what one will, Surjeet remains a phenomenon of Indian
politics. He emulates the cockroach not only in his survival at
the highest level of politics without facing the electorate at
any level, but also in the uncanny ability to have access to the
inner-most portals of decision making. His effect on Indian
politics is largely negative, but the fact that he continues to
be effective is no mean achievement.

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