An inspiring leader (1925-2017)

Surjit Singh Barnala, who was born into a wealthy family in Punjab on 21 October 1925, and passed away on 14 January 2017, graduated in Law from the Lucknow University, and practiced for a few years as an advocate, before plunging headlong into politics as a member of the Akali Dal. A true patriot, he also participated in the Quit India movement that fought for the country’s freedom from the British yoke. He was politically active in the late 60s and lost his first major election in 1952 by a mere four votes. His first ministerial assignment came in 1969 when he was appointed as the Minister for Education in the Gurnam Singh government in Punjab. During this tenure he was instrumental in setting up the Guru Nanak Dev University in Amritsar. He was voted to the Lok Sabha in the 1977 general election, and was inducted into the cabinet by Prime Minister (PM) Morarji Desai, who allotted the important portfolio of Agriculture to him. A whole string of other portfolios including Water Resources, Irrigation, Food, Consumer Affairs, Environment and Forests, Power, Rural Development and Chemicals and Fertilisers were also tagged on to the Agriculture Ministry. A high watermark during his stint as Union Minister was the signing of the Ganga Waters Agreement with Bangladesh. He came close to becoming the PM in 1979 after Morarji Desai resigned as President, and toyed with the idea of installing an interim government headed by Barnala as PM, but that did not materialise.

Returning to state politics, Barnala became the Chief Minister (CM) of Punjab and served in that capacity for almost two years when the Shironmani Akali Dal was voted to power. The period that he was the CM witnessed Punjab militancy at its peak, and his deft handling of the situation won him a lot of praise. He then served as Governor of Tamil Nadu from 1990–1991, for a period of just nine months. As the Governor of Tamil Nadu, he defied a diktat from Prime Minister Chandrasekhar to dismiss the ruling DMK government by invoking Article 356, and was transferred to Bihar which he did not accept, preferring to resign from his post. He again missed an opportunity to become PM when regional leaders came up with his name, but his own party headed by Prakash Singh Badal foiled his plans by allying with the BJP instead. In the following year, the BJP and its allies proposed his name for the Vice President’s post but he lost to Krishna Kant in the election. After being elected to Parliament in 1998 as a nominee of the Shironmani Akali Dal, then an ally of the BJP he was appointed as the Union Minister for Chemicals & Fertilisers, Food & Consumer Affairs in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee cabinet. He distinguished himself by his adroit handling of the portfolios allotted to him and was rated as one of the most efficient ministers in the cabinet. He had one of the longest stints as Tamil Nadu governor from 2004 to 2011 and endeared himself to the people of the state. Barnala was elected to the Lower House on three occasions, in 1977, 1996 and 1998.

At the time of his death, Surjit Singh Barnala was the patron of a four party alliance in Punjab, the ‘Sanja Morcha’. The veteran politician was a prolific painter and specialised in landscapes and political portraits and many of his creations still adorn the walls of the Raj Bhavans where he had resided in his capacity as Governor. He also authored a couple of books, one titled Story of an Escape and the other My other two daughters, which was also translated in Braille. Surjit Singh Barnala was a cultured politician who set high standards in matters like probity and maintaining the dignity of the various offices that he held during a long and eventful political career.

– C. V. Aravind is a Bangalore-based freelance journalist.)