INNUMERABLE OBITUARIES OF veteran Akali leader, former Punjab minister and former secretary of the SGPC, Manjit Singh Calcutta, had one thing in common: they all called him the last of the taksali Akali leaders of that generation who worked for the panth and remained alive to the genuine political aspirations of the community. But with Parkash Singh Badal still alive and active, why is Manjit Singh Calcutta being called the "last taksali Akali leader”?
Calcutta died on the morning of January 18. Former minister. Former SGPC secretary. Former chief secretary of the SGPC. Nothing presently. He was a lot of things formerly, and was only a 'could have been' presently.
It was a deal Manjit Singh Calcutta could have made. He did not. From his days in the AISSF to his rise in the Akali ranks, becoming a secretary of the SGPC, then a minister, and remaining close to the parallel power centre called Tohra, Manjit Singh Calcutta had seen deal making from close quarters.
One thing he remained till the end was a dissenter. There were other dissenters in the Akali ranks, but he knew how to remain a dissenting voice consistently. His boss Gurcharan Singh Tohra was a dissenter, till he abolished his Sarv Hind Shiromani Akali Dal and shook hands with Badal again.
It was a deal Manjit Singh Calcutta could have made. He did not. From his days in the All India Sikh Students Federation to his rise in the Akali ranks, becoming a secretary of the SGPC, becoming Punjab’s minister for higher education, and remaining so close to the parallel power centre called Gurcharan Singh Tohra, Manjit Singh Calcutta had seen deal-making from close quarters.
There were deals that he did not make all his life. He knew sons and daughters of politicians can be adjusted. He refused to bring any of his progeny – a son and two daughters – into politics.
When Gurcharan Singh Tohra was unceremoniously removed as SGPC chief just before Khalsa Tercentenary celebrations of 1999, Manjit Singh Calcutta was among the five ministers who quit the Akali Dal in protest. One by one, the others – Mahesh Inder Singh Grewal, Harmail Singh Tohra, Inderjit Singh Zira and Surjit Singh Kohli -- gradually made their peace with the Badals, agreeing to either far lesser roles or reduced to waiting for their turn till eternity in the queue for Badal's benevolence.
Over the years, Mahesh Inder Grewal became an apology of a spokesman for Badal, Zira found a toe-hold in Congress, Harmail Tohra clung on to the AAP bandwagon and shouts Kejriwal Zindabad very loudly, while Kohli has opted for political oblivion.
Bechara Sukhdev Singh Bhaur waited in the queue for very long for Badal’s alms and recently decided it wasn’t worth it.
Over the years, Mahesh Inder Grewal became an apology of a spokesman for Badal, Zira found a toe-hold in Congress, Harmail Tohra clutched Kejriwal’s tail while Kohli opted for political oblivion. Chandumajra made the deal for halqa incharge while poor Sukhdev Singh Bhaur waited in the queue from Clinton to George Bush to Barack Obama to Donald Trump. The alms didn’t come.
If Tohra’s name was currency, it has little convertible value now. He lorded over the SGPC for more than a quarter century and remained a Lok Sabha MP once and a Rajya Sabha MP five times. Once the centre of Sikh politics, he fell on the margins within weeks of his death.
In the Badal father, Badal son world of Akali politics, the daughter of Tohra sat outside Sukhbir’s doors for an SGPC ticket, or even less, and eventually went over to AAP where they now sit on the extreme margins of a party that is in danger of being on the margins itself.
This is the kind of fate Manjit Singh Calcutta was successful in avoiding.
Manjit Singh Calcutta refused to sit at the feet of the father-son duo. That place of "pride” went to Prem Singh Chandumajra, once a strong Tohra loyalist. Chandumajra is now Badals' shouting brigade leader, also an MP, and someone who strikes very low value deals, the last being the deal for his son Harinder Pal. In Punjab's electoral deal making arena, it's often your soul or the halqa incharge, and most opt for the later. The halka variety, the lightweight.
Manjit Singh Calcutta was instrumental in deal making at the highest level. When Badal was not well, he took Tohra to see Badal. When Tohra was unwell, he took Badal to see Tohra.
He could have made a deal for himself. He did not.
Manjit Singh Calcutta was instrumental in deal making at the highest level. When Badal was not well, he took Tohra to see Badal. When Tohra was unwell, he took Badal to Tohra. He could have made a deal for himself. He did not.
Well-read, English-speaking, with his trademark flowing beard and blue turban, Manjit Singh Calcutta was erudite by the relative standards of Punjab politicians. Often spotted with a book, he was the go-to man for journalists for a quote on all matters panthic.
Among the first Akali leaders to raise the issue of RSS' attempts to saffronise education, polity and society, Manjit Singh Calcutta had walked out of a meeting convened and chaired by the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee over Saraswati Vandana with which the meeting had begun. There were stormy scenes at that meeting.
During his stint as Higher Education Minister in the Punjab Cabinet under Badal, Calcutta took exception when some Sikh rituals were carried out before the Republic Day celebrations in various districts in 1998.
Later, when Tohra formed his Sarv Hind Shiromani Akali Dal, Calcutta would often attack Badal for failing to confront the BJP and the RSS, and Chandumajra would routinely call Badal "an RSS agent."
Even during the last years of his life, Calcutta had rebuffed offers from the BJP for an important political role. Chandumajra's party, meanwhile, now has an alliance with the RSS-guided BJP.
Calcutta had a soft corner for Amarinder Singh, but now Amarinder Singh has found a soft corner for causes dear to the BJP. So he wants more heads of Pakistani soldiers, writes articles in newspapers to demand a medal for an Army major who tied a Kashmiri vote-casting citizen on the bonnet of a jeep as a human shield, and wants a ban on Padmawati. I’m not sure Manjit Singh Calcutta would have approved, not even if there are serious Enforcement Directorate cases hovering over Amarinder’s head which may have clouded his judgement.
He was consistently a part of the countervailing forces vis-à-vis the Badals in Akali polity. He remained in the forefront of forces trying to restore that balance. It’s called the art of making one deal: Dissenter forever.
Manjit Singh Calcutta was clear which deals he would not make.
He was consistently a part of the countervailing forces vis-à-vis the Badals in Akali polity. He remained in the forefront of forces trying to restore that balance.
It’s called the art of making one deal: Dissenter forever.
That's a role Manjit Singh Calcutta would have preferred to play, but then history and politics make for a combo-game of too many objective factors creating appropriate openings. Perhaps, in case of this man who was always known by the name of one of India's oldest metro cities as his last name, Calcutta did not find that opening.
Meanwhile, the world changed. The Akali Dal changed. From Pardhan Ji meaning Gurcharan Singh Tohra, to Pardhan Ji meaning Sukhbir Singh Badal, Calcutta watched it all change from his ringside seat in politics. Many tiny versions of Pardhan Ji’s came by - the likes of Badungars and Makkars - but he never saw the balance being restored in the Akali polity.
In the end, after his death, he won the reward. Obituary writers called him the last taksali Akali politician. And Parkash Singh Badal, still alive and active, read those obituaries. Calcutta robbed him of a title, finally. It’s a big deal.
Manjit Singh Calcutta knew which deal to make. He clinched the last one.
Rest in Peace – the last taksali Akali. You win.
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