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Hoping for 1996 Repeat, the Ragtag Opposition Needs a Harkishan Singh Surjeet 2.0

As the opposition gets down to the task of setting its house in order, the big question is: who can replace the late CPM stalwart Harkishan Singh Surjeet, the consensus builder who stitched together an anti-BJP coalition of secular forces.

Anita Katyal |

Updated:May 12, 2019, 1:49 PM IST
Hoping for 1996 Repeat, the Ragtag Opposition Needs a Harkishan Singh Surjeet 2.0
Andhra Pradesh CM Chandrababu Naidu also fancies himself as Harkishan Singh Surjeet’s successor. In this December 2, 1997 photo, he is seen with Surjeet during a press call outside the Rashtrapati Bhavan. (File photo/Reuters)

Working on the assumption that the BJP will not be able to muster the numbers to form the next government, opposition parties have started reaching out to each other to discuss the post-poll scenario.

Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister and TDP chief N Chandrababu Naidu initiated the process during his latest visit to Delhi when he met Congress president Rahul Gandhi to talk about the opposition’s joint moves after the declaration of election results on May 23.

CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury and CPI leader D Raja have been in touch with senior Congress leader Ahmed Patel for the same. At the same time, Rahul Gandhi has called a meeting of opposition parties on May 21 to devise a common strategy so they are not caught off-guard once the poll results are out.

Clearly, the country’s capital is set to witness a flurry of political activity in the coming days. But as the opposition camp gets down to the task of setting its house in order, the big question on everyone’s mind is: who can be depended upon to replace the late CPM stalwart Harkishan Singh Surjeet, the consensus builder who worked tirelessly to stitch together an anti-BJP coalition of secular forces.

This happened in 1996 when the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government collapsed after 13 days as the saffron party could not win over a sufficient number of friends to cross the majority mark in the Lok Sabha. With a flair for realpolitik and friends across the political spectrum, Surjeet was chiefly responsible for persuading regional satraps like Lalu Prasad Yadav, Mulayum Singh Yadav, Mayawati and M Karunanidhi to set aside their personal ambitions and their mutual differences to come together on a common platform to keep out the BJP.

What followed was days of hectic behind-the-scene parleys with the regional parties which eventually led to the formation of the United Front government, headed first by HD Deve Gowda and then by IK Gujral. Surjeet’s persuasive powers were on display as he also succeeded in getting the Congress to lend outside support to this government.

Similarly, Surjeet’s never-say-die spirit prevailed once again in 2004 when he was able to convince senior leaders like VP Singh and Chandrashekhar to drop their opposition to former Congress president Sonia Gandhi on account of her foreign origins and endorse her efforts to put together an alliance of “like-minded” parties to keep out the BJP. Indeed, Surjeet made a significant contribution to the formation of the United Progressive Alliance government as he was able to coax the Left parties to prop up this dispensation with outside support.

Today when the Congress and regional parties are struggling to take on the BJP, which has expanded its footprint to emerge as the dominant political force in the country, they are in dire need of a leader of Surjeet’s stature and calibre, who can sit them together and hammer out a consensus. There are many leaders who are attempting to emulate Surjeet in putting together a grand anti-BJP coalition, but clearly, they are not in the same league as the late CPM veteran.

The present CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury is often mentioned as Surjeet’s worthy successor. Yechury has the same temperament as his party senior and, like Surjeet, is known for his pragmatism, has friends across the political divide and is not rigid as he understands the demands of electoral politics. To a large extent, Yechury has been involved in bringing together the disparate opposition parties, but he lacks the advantage of Surjeet’s seniority. Moreover, Surjeet was heading the CPM when the party had a sizeable presence in Parliament and had three state governments under its belt. He was also the unquestionable leader of the CPM.

Yechury, on the other hand, is operating with a handicap as he is heading the CPM when the Left parties have been virtually wiped out in their bastions in West Bengal and Tripura. Besides, Yechury himself does not carry the same authority in his own party. His tense relationship with his predecessor Prakash Karat is an open secret. The CPM general secretary also faced flak from his party for aligning with the Congress in the last West Bengal assembly polls, a move which boomeranged on the Left parties.

Chandrababu Naidu, or Babu as he is called, also fancies himself as Surjeet’s successor. To be fair, he did play a key role in the running of the United Front government and was readily available to mediate between the fractious regional satraps. Naidu was responsible for IK Gujral’s appointment as prime minister in 1997 when Gowda stepped down after the Congress withdrew support to the United Front government.

Even today, Naidu is attempting to play kingmaker. Ever since he parted company with the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, the Andhra CM has taken it upon himself to ensure the smooth formation of an opposition coalition. But Naidu is no match to Surjeet. For instance, he failed in his effort to persuade the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party to formalise an alliance in Delhi. Besides, Naidu’s case as a kingmaker is weakened as he also sees himself as a contender for the country’s top post even though he has denied harbouring any such ambitions.

And then there is NCP chief Sharad Pawar. The senior leader has the necessary credentials to take up Surjeet’s unfinished task. He has the gravitas, has friends in all political parties, including the Shiv Sena, comes with vast experience and is looked upon as a politically mature person whose advice is generally valued. But as another contender for the prime minister’s post, his efforts to cobble together a rainbow coalition may be looked upon with a hint of suspicion.

This brings us back to the original question: is there an opposition leader today who can measure up to Surjeet in forging another anti-BJP alliance?

(The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal)

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| Edited by: Nitya Thirumalai
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