After leading the Communist Party of India-Marxist as its general secretary for 13 years, Harkishen Singh Surjeet quit the post last week, citing old age.
The 89-year-old Marxist veteran has given the CPI-M reins to Prakash Karat (left, with Surjeet above), one of the party's most respected ideologues.
All these years that he has been at the helm, Surjeet has played one of the most defining roles for the Marxist party at the national level. Ever since coalition power sharing became the mainstay of Indian politics after the 1996 Lok Sabha election, Surjeet has played a crucial role in New Delhi as a deft political player and kingmaker.
As Surjeet stepped down last week, he spent time with Deputy Managing Editor George Iype to discuss his contributions to the CPI-M and to national politics.
Now that you have stepped down as CPI-M general secretary, what would do you see as your biggest achievement?
Our party has grown under my leadership all these years. My biggest achievement has been that I brought the CPI-M to the forefront of national politics. I fought communal forces, and look what is the result. Today we have a secular government led by the Congress.
The CPI-M takes equal credit with others in forming such a viable coalition government at the Centre. The CPI-M has found a viable space in the secular coalition at the Centre. I am happy about it.
All you wanted to know about CPI-M
Everyone says you have been a kingmaker all these years. What do you say?
I am not a kingmaker. I have fought against the evils of politics. I have fought against fundamentalist and communalist forces. In the process, the CPI-M has been a major force to reckon with during government formations. We have played a key role in shaping national politics as it is today. We will continue to do so.
Are you stepping down as CPI-M general secretary a happy, contented man?
Yes, I am very happy about it. Age has caught up with me. I had told my partymen months back of my inability to continue in the post.
Are you happy that a younger generation of leadership has taken over the reins of the CPI-M?
Yes, India is to be led by young leaders. Our party should also be led by young leaders. I am very happy that Prakash Karat is the new general secretary. He will be an excellent leader.
CPI-M: Ringing in the new
The CPI-M's biggest problem now is that it is existent only in three states -- Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura -- and does not have much political clout in other parts, especially the north Indian states.
Yes, that is correct. Our new focus now is to spread the party across the breadth and length of India. We have set up new state units. We will carry out the promotion of our party in the interiors of the country. We are planning to come out with our own newspapers in north India, to spread our ideology and political reach across the states.
The CPI-M Meet 2005
It is almost one year since the United Progressive Alliance government has been in office. Are you happy with the UPA government's performance?
We decided to support this government for two reasons. First, the CPI-M recognises the Congress as a secular party. It is also the biggest political party in the country, whom we felt we should help to form the government.
Secondly, this government came in because of the defeat of the BJP in our hands. So it was a mandate for a secular formation in which the CPI-M is a major player. I will not say I am very happy about this government. We have many basic differences with this government. But that does not mean we would not continue to support it. We will continue to support this government on our terms and conditions.
What are your terms and conditions?
The government has to fulfil its commitments in the Common Minimum Programme to undo harmful economic policies. Increasing public investment in agriculture, employment generation on a large scale and revitalising the public distribution system is a must.
We want the government to reverse the bleak record of low expenditures on health and education. The public sector must not be treated as if it is a burden on the country. It should be the basis for building a self-reliant economy meeting our national priorities. We will support this government. At the same time, we will continue to press for pro-people measures.
Is the CPI-M thinking of a third political alternative?
Our ultimate aim is a viable third alternative led by the CPI-M in the country. Such an alternative has to be based on a common policy platform, and all the secular parties are welcome for that.
What is your vision for the CPI-M?
Our party has to grow to become a strong force nationally.
Photograph: Saab PressImage: Rahil Shaikh