The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Job done, buzz of last lal salaam

New Delhi, March 27: Harkishen Singh Surjeet is keeping his comrades guessing about his possible retirement from the post of general secretary at the CPM congress that begins in Delhi from April 6.

Surjeet has been at the helm of the CPM for four terms. Party circles are abuzz with speculation that the 87-year-old communist leader's age and frail health will prevent him from continuing in the post.

But Surjeet is keeping mum about his future plans. 'He may announce the decision to quit at the party congress itself. So far, he has not given any indication of what he is going to do,' a party leader said.

'Nobody in the party is going to ask Surjeet to step down. He will have to make that decision himself if he really wants to step down,' another Left leader added.

Notwithstanding his poor health, Surjeet recently attended a large number of state conferences in the run-up to the party congress.

Among the meetings he attended was an explosive one in Kerala where local-level intra-party rivalries played themselves out and the so-called 'pro-changers' scored a victory over hardliners in a surprise election.

A colleague asked Surjeet if he was attending so many party conferences to say a last 'lal salaam' to his comrades before stepping down.

'Surjeet merely smiled and said nothing,' a Left leader said.

All indications seem to suggest that it will not be possible for Surjeet to continue in this post. He is likely to be succeeded by Prakash Karat.

'Surjeet may not want to share what is on his mind because he does not want to trigger speculation about his successor within his party at this point, on the eve of the congress,' one of the Left leaders said.

Three years ago, there was similar speculation about Surjeet's retirement at the Hyderabad party congress.

Surjeet was in poor health even then. But he was re-elected general secretary, triggering a fresh round of speculation that he may eventually give up the post in the middle of the term and Karat may take charge.

That also did not happen. Surjeet continued for the full three-year term.

One of the reasons why Surjeet was considered virtually 'indispensable' was because he enjoys wide acceptance among non-BJP parties and has a flair for coalition politics.

The CPM general secretary, like Jyoti Basu, is also close to 10 Janpath. The Yadav duo ' Mulayam Singh Yadav and Laloo Prasad Yadav ' turn to him and seek his intervention in every hour of crisis, particularly when they have problems with the Congress.

At the time of the Hyderabad party congress, the NDA was in power at the Centre and the CPM's primary political objective was to get rid of the Vajpayee government and to instal a secular coalition in Delhi.

That pressure has now gone with the United Progressive Alliance government firmly in the saddle at the Centre.

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