India's veteran Marxist leader Harkishan Singh Surjeet was an astute and foxy politician who ensured that his country's small band of Communists remained an influential political force in the world's largest democracy. As General Secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the CPM, for 13 years until 2005, he exerted an influence that was in inverse proportion to the small number of MPs from India's four leftist parties. He was instrumental in almost single-handedly bolstering Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's ruling federal coalition following the 2004 general election. His support and determination to install Singh's Congress Party-led government stemmed from a desire to prevent the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with its divisive communal and sectarian outlook, from assuming power. Through his trademark plain-speaking, Surjeet persuaded parties onthe left to support Singh's administration from outside government. This arrangement broke down recently, however, plunging India into political uncertainty, and many believe that this was because the old-style Marxist was ailing. Earlier, between 1996 and 1998, "Comrade Surjeet", as he liked to be called, successfully cobbled together two brief administrations with the express aim of keeping the invidious BJP out of office. But unfortunately the two prime ministers he backed proved highly incompetent, each lasting less than a year in office. Though a Sikh himself, with his carelessly tied white turban as his most distinguishing feature, he positioned the CPM as the only political party thateffectively combated the Sikh separatist movement. During the 1980s, he lost over 200 comrades to insurgent attacks. Surjeet was born in 1919 in Ropowal village in the Jalandhar district of India's northern Punjab state. His was a poor household – his father worked briefly as a bus driver in Panama – and Surjeet was schooled locally. At the age of 14, he joined the national movement for independence from colonial rule by becoming a member of the Young Indians Organisation, founded by iconic Indian revolutionaries and socialists like Bhagat Singh, who was executed for assassinating a senior British police officer who had shot dead a freedom fighter. In 1932, on the first anniversary of Bhagat Singh's death, Surjeet displayed exemplary courage by tearing down the Union Jack fluttering above the Deputy Commissioner's office in his home town of Hoshiarpur and replacing it with the Indian flag. An army unit, one of many deployed across Punjab by the British administration, fired twice on the defiant teenager, but missed. When he was arrested and taken before the magistrate, Surjeet defiantly gave his name as "London Tod Singh" – or "London Destroyer Singh". Sentenced to one year's imprisonment, he taunted the court by asking "Just one year?" and duly had his prison term quadrupled. "Only four years?" he then enquired of the magistrate, who helplessly responded that he was statute-bound not to give him a longer term. During his political career, which spanned nearly eight decades, Surjeet spent a decade in jail: eight years under the British and two years as a political prisoner under Congress Party rule in the 1970s. In 1934, he joined the Communist Party of India to better the lot of peasants in Punjab and four years later became head of the powerful state farmers' organisation. Until independence in 1947, he opposed the British by joining several anti-colonial movements and he edited popular nationalist journals such as Dukhi Duniya ("Unhappy World") and the fiery Chingari ("Spark"), which greatly irked the administration. In 1964, when India's Communist Party split on ideological grounds,Surjeet, who was opposed to revisionism, opted for the more radical CPM, which looked to Beijing for guidance instead of the rival, Moscow-leaning break-away faction. By the 1980s, through his grassroots experienceand inherent shrewdness, Surjeetrealised that the debasement of Indian politics would take place along communal lines and positioned himself to oppose it. He was deeply committed to the idea that the future of Communism in India was integrally and inseparably bound to India's future as a secular and democratic republic. Surjeet also grasped the fact that coalitions would dominate Indian politics and he successfully worked towards making political space for Communism. A close friend of leading Communists around the world, Surjeet was India's "bread man" to Fidel Castro, after he sent 10,000 tons of wheat to Havana to help the island fight the blockade by the United States in the early 1990s. His personal regimen was spartan. He lived and dressed simply in homespun cotton, and in India's rapacious political system he was a beacon of probity and freshness. Kuldip Singh Harkishan Singh Surjeet, political leader: born Ropowal, India 23 March 1916; General Secretary, Communist Party of India (Marxist) 1992-2005; married (two sons, one daughter); died New Delhi 1 August 2008.