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Volume 25 - Issue 25 :: Dec. 06-19, 2008
INDIA'S NATIONAL MAGAZINE
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OBITUARY

Icon of social justice

VENKITESH RAMAKRISHNAN

Vishwanath Pratap Singh (1931-2008).

PTI

V.P. Singh never compromised on principles. He faced adversities head-on, whether they were political or personal.

“I AM standing before you here in flesh and blood. If you like to physically assault me, you can do it now. You do not have to throw stones from a distance or scream at me from afar. Come here, do what you want. I am ready to face everything. I have the conviction that I am doing right when I seek to bring social justice and equality to this society and our country.” With these words Vishwanath Pratap Singh moved sideways from the mike and took two steps forward on the dais. He was right in front daring potential attackers. Silence engulfed the environs of that extraordinary public meeting.

Until that moment, the predominantly Dalit-Other Backward Classes (OBC) meeting was under constant brickbatting from a group of people who had taken cover in nearby buildings. Bottles and stones that came hurtling through the air had found two other important targets on the dais – former Union Ministers Sharad Yadav and Ajit Singh. Both suffered injuries on the head and were rushed to hospital for first aid. It was at this moment that V.P. Singh stepped in to speak.

The silence hung in the air for what seemed an eternity; the assault too stopped. It was a rare instance of magical, emotive political oration that one had the privilege of witnessing. The meeting progressed without untoward incidents thereafter.

This happened 18 years ago, in November 1990, and remains one of my most enduring experiences as a political journalist. Barely two weeks had passed after V.P. Singh had been ousted as Prime Minister following the withdrawal of support to the National Front (N.F.) government by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The political atmosphere in the country, especially in North India, was surcharged in the tussle between the Mandir and Mandal positions represented respectively by the BJP and other members of the Sangh Parivar and the V.P. Singh-led N.F.

The BJP and its Sangh Parivar associates were making active efforts to build a pan-Hindu political identity by whipping up Hindutva passions. The N.F., along with the Left parties, was highlighting the benefits of the V.P. Singh government’s decision to implement reservations for OBCs in Central government jobs as recommended by the Mandal Commission. The thrust of the N.F.-Left campaign – spearheaded by the top leadership of the then Janata Dal and Left leaders such as Harkishan Singh Surjit and A.B. Bardhan – was that the BJP had resorted to extreme Hindutva and brought down the V.P. Singh government in order to scuttle the implementation of the Mandal Commission report.

One of the first tours as part of the N.F.-Left campaign was in eastern Uttar Pradesh. The assault, and V.P. Singh’s response to it, happened in the very first meeting on that trip, at Gorakhpur, where Hindu Mahasabha leader and local Lok Sabha member Mahant Avaidyanath had built up a considerable following along with a phalanx of Hindutva musclemen.

MAN OF PRINCIPLES

Later on that campaign trip, Sharad Yadav, commenting on the happenings at Gorakhpur to this correspondent, pointed out that one of the most striking qualities of V.P. Singh was that he never compromised on principles and faced adversities head-on, whether they were political or personal. Subsequently, Sharad Yadav parted ways with V.P. Singh and even joined hands with the BJP, but his assessment about the former Prime Minister has indeed stood the test of time.

Right at the beginning of his political career as a local leader of the Congress in Allahabad, V.P. Singh earned a reputation for being uncompromising on his political-organisational principles and having an innate sense of rectitude. These values earned him the sobriquet of “Mr. Clean” even when he was nominated the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh in 1980. Two years into the chief ministership, V.P. Singh upheld these values once again by resigning when his brother was killed by dacoits.

Following the massive Congress victory in the 1984 Lok Sabha polls, V.P. Singh was brought to the Centre by then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Here, too, as Finance Minister he pursued a relentless campaign against tax evaders. Those whom he targeted included big corporate houses such as Reliance. Following this, he was shifted to the Defence Ministry, and it was then that the simmering differences between him and Rajiv Gandhi got concretised. As Finance Minister, he had raised questions about the HDW submarine deal, and as Defence Minister he took a strong position on the Bofors howitzer scam. On this issue, he parted ways with Rajiv Gandhi and the Congress and launched the Jan Morcha, a grouping of erstwhile Congress leaders and disillusioned Rajiv Gandhi loyalists such as Arun Nehru and Arif Mohammed Khan.

The Jan Morcha, despite not having a well-defined organisational structure and machinery, became the pivot of the opposition parties’ effort to overthrow the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress regime and establish the N.F. government, only the second non-Congress coalition government at the Centre.

The Jan Morcha first turned into the Janata Dal through its association with many leaders and the merger of many parties. The Janata Dal later joined hands with parties such as the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and the Congress(S). The N.F. government received outside support from the Left parties and the BJP until it was brought down by the BJP in 1990 on the Ayodhya issue.

BEHIND THE PARADIGM SHIFT

V.P. Singh is credited with many a contribution in the political and administrative spheres. The manner in which he controlled dacoity as the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, his campaign against tax evasion by industrialists as Finance Minister in the Rajiv Gandhi Cabinet, the initiatives he took as Prime Minister to bring peace to the then troubled State of Punjab, all form part of a long list. But on top of this list will undoubtedly be his decision to implement the Mandal Commission recommendations. The decision, arguably, produced the biggest paradigm shift in the country’s polity since Independence. It unleashed the social and political power of Dalits and OBCs in such a massive scale across the country that these communities started demanding greater social justice and a rightful share in society, politics, governance and administration.

The N.F. government’s decision and related political developments made the politics of assertion by Dalits, OBCs and sections of the Most Backward Classes (MBCs) a phenomenon manifest across the country. This politics of assertion had a long-term influence on the polity. In fact, the impact of the forces unleashed by V.P. Singh’s decision of 1990 was such that Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have predominantly had OBC Chief Ministers since the early 1990s.

Despite this concrete political outcome, V.P. Singh’s critics would argue that the N.F. government’s decision to implement the Mandal report was an off-the-cuff reaction to BJP leader Lal Krishna Advani’s Somnath-to-Ayodhya rath yatra, which was polarising Hindus on a pan-Hindu political plank.

Facts of history, however, do not corroborate this view. For, V.P. Singh had taken the lead to implement the Mandal report when he was the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh. There was little doubt that he was convinced about the historical necessity to implement the report. In all probability, he would have implemented it at greater leisure if the rath yatra had not been launched. The Advani yatra divested V.P. Singh of the leisure and perhaps a more organised and structured pace of implementation.

GUIDING SPIRIT

Despite the ascent of the politics and socio-political forces unleashed under his leadership since the early 1990s, V.P. Singh himself did not benefit personally or occupy any position of power in the following years. He did come close to occupying the Prime Minister’s chair again, in 1996, after the defeat of the P.V. Narasimha Rao-led Congress regime. The position was offered to him by the United Front (U.F.) that was formed in 1996, but he turned it down. Instead, he donned the role of a guiding spirit behind the U.F. and was instrumental in elevating H.D. Deve Gowda to the Prime Minister’s position. Later, when the Deve Gowda Ministry collapsed following the withdrawal of Congress support, V.P. Singh worked along with the then Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjit to keep the U.F. together and bring up Inder Kumar Gujral as the new Prime Minister.

Talking to this correspondent when the Deve Gowda government was in office, V.P. Singh pointed out that it was in the fitness of things that he did not occupy any position of power despite the fact that Mandal politics was on the ascendant. He said: “The thrust of this politics is to confer social, economic and political power, rights and privileges to those communities that have been kept away from these for centuries. In fact, what they are seeking and gaining is something that they rightfully deserve. So, when representatives and leaders of those communities emerge, acquire power and use it fruitfully, my historic role also gets fulfilled.”

However, at one level, V.P. Singh was unhappy that almost all the votaries of Mandal politics were running political organisations that were devoid of structured functioning or internal democracy. “The structure of almost all these parties is indeed a travesty of the social justice slogan,” he used to comment wryly.

By the time the U.F. government fell and Lok Sabha elections were held in 1998, V.P. Singh had been diagnosed with cancer. His medical condition was such that he had to undergo two or three sessions of dialysis in a week. He retired from active public life in 1998. Still, his political antenna was up as always, and with the rise of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in the Lok Sabha elections that year, V.P. Singh reoriented his primary political goal to that of defeating the Hindutva forces.

He perceived the NDA government under Atal Bihari Vajpayee, which ruled between 1998 and 2004, as the symbol of the rise of communal politics. This perception steadily led to a dilution of his anti-Congress positions. By 2004, this dilution assumed concrete dimensions, and he virtually goaded many of his ardent followers, such as S. Jaipal Reddy and Wasim Ahmed, to join and take up positions of responsibility in the Congress.

During the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, he expressed open support to the Congress and helped the Congress forge alliances with regional parties such as Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakthi Party (LJP) and the DMK. These alliances went a long way in helping the Congress defeat the NDA and form the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government under the leadership of Manmohan Singh.

However, during the latter years of his life, he was disappointed with the functioning of the UPA government. He made no secret of it and asserted that his primary concern was the inequities being generated by the government’s policies and processes favouring globalisation and economic liberalisation. He consistently took a position against providing unequal and partisan facilities to national and international corporate companies in the name of special economic zones (SEZs). In the process, he led many campaigns championing the cause of farmers and agricultural labourers whose land had been acquired for SEZs at unjust prices.

POET AND PAINTER

A large number of his associates and friends aver that as a person V.P. Singh was able to keep his poise and composure despite the pressures of politics, essentially on account of his keen interest in the fine arts, particularly poetry and painting. He has written a number of poems and has a published an anthology of poems – Ek Tukda Dharti, Ek Tukda Asman (A piece of earth, a piece of sky) – to his credit.

His love for flowers and animals is also well known. On the evening of November 27, a few hours after the former Prime Minister’s death at the age of 77, Nimbu Lal, the gardener at V.P. Singh’s house for many years, said: “Who will talk to me now about the right way to treat roses and jasmine, and parrots and sparrows, and malis (gardeners) and kisans (farmers)?” Saying this, Nimbu Lal, wept uncontrollably.

His question is indeed significant. It will certainly take a long time for history to produce another politician of his breed; a politician in whom a historical understanding of the society he lived in blended perfectly with empathy for the downtrodden, producing concrete administrative and governance programmes.



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