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First to pass: the voice
- Left to Right, signs of farewell become flavour of the day

New Delhi, April 6: It was not a farewell. Not yet. But there was nostalgia in the air as the CPM's chief protagonists ' Harkishen Singh Surjeet and Jyoti Basu ' arrived at Talkatora Stadium today for the 18th party congress.

For Surjeet, this could be his last congress as the party's general secretary. For Basu, his last as politburo member ' if the CPM grants his request.

At the end of six days, when the congress concludes, the CPM leadership will officially announce its decision on a change of guard. But that will be official. Unofficially, the stage for the exit of the two Marxist leaders from active politics was set on the first day itself.

Surjeet could not read out his opening speech. His voice has turned into a whisper over the years. It seemed only apt that Prakash Karat, his junior colleague who will take the baton from him, read out the text.

Nostalgia seeped into the address. 'Today, April 6, happens to be the 75th anniversary of the conclusion of Dandi march by Gandhiji and his breaking the salt law ' an event which galvanised the country to participate in the mass civil disobedience movement, an important chapter in the freedom struggle,' Surjeet recalled.

He went back to his years of association with the national movement when he spent months in solitary confinement in the Lahore fort jail for organising peasants against the British.

'The communist party, since its inception in 1920, had been a consistent and determined fighter for national liberation. They organised the workers and peasants to join the freedom struggle,' the general secretary said.

In the morning, before the session began, red guard volunteers lined up to greet the 'living legends' of the CPM who have been the backbone of its regional and national politics. If Basu reigned over West Bengal for almost a quarter of a century, 87-year-old Surjeet has been the party's public face at the Centre for decades.

'They are our legends. We want them to remain associated with the party in whatever way they can,' said politburo member Sitaram Yechury.

Outside the stadium, there were huge cutouts of Surjeet and Basu next to red flags strung across the roads. Inside, the cadre and delegates awaited their arrival.

Surjeet arrived first. Brinda Karat, the organising secretary of the reception committee, helped him out of the car. Shouts of 'Comrade Surjeet ko Lal Salaam' went up as Surjeet, assisted by Yechury, walked down to join his colleagues. It has been a long innings for the communist leader who began his journey in undivided Punjab, now part of Pakistan.

Basu reached minutes after Surjeet. In his characteristic style, he stepped out from the car on his own, refusing the hands extended to help him. Raising a hand in greeting to shouts of 'Lal Salaam', Basu walked down ' still surprisingly agile on an uneven path ' to join Surjeet and other politburo and central committee members.

Delivering a speech at the end of the inaugural session, Basu said: 'I have worked in the communist party for more than 64 years. I am past 90 now and in bad health.' His voice, however, rang out loud and clear, belying his 91years.

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