EPW/DECEMBER 6, 2008
Vishwanath Pratap Singh (born 25 June 1931 – died 27 November 2008) India’s eighth prime minister (2 December 1989 to 7 November 1990) was a complex and brilliant political personality who will be remembered for a variety of reasons.
Beginning his political life in Allahabad in Indira Gandhi’s Congress, he was among those whom Sanjay Gandhi promoted to positions of power. This die-hard Indira-Sanjay loyalist ended up heading a non-Congress government between 1989 and 1990. And when he died on 27 November2008, did not belong to any political party.
When V P Singh was sworn in as prime minister on 2 December 1989, he had
travelled a long distance from participating in Vinobha Bhave’s Bhoodan movement during the 1950s. He was among those who gave away their land to be distributed among the landless. There was still a lot of time before V P Singh landed up with the Congress Party. He remained in the Congress during the Emergency and after the party was vanquished in the general elections in 1977. His loyalty to Indira/Sanjay Gandhi earned him a berth, as a junior minister in the union government when the Congress returned to power in January 1980. V P Singh at the time did not conceal the fact that he owed his rise in the Congress to Sanjay Gandhi. He belonged to a generation in the party to whom Sanjay Gandhi was the icon and Indira Gandhi the supreme leader.
Later in June 1980, V P Singh was made chief minister of Uttar Pradesh (UP). In the two years (1980 -1982) that he was chief minister, there were no charges of corruption against him. In that sense, he was a contrast from the others who rose in the party and became chief ministers and cabinet ministers thanks to their loyalty to Sanjay Gandhi.
But V P Singh’s short term as UP chief minister was also marked by a complete failure insofar as the law and order situation was concerned. The Moradabad communal violence in August 1980 was a case in point. While instances of anti-Muslim violence were not new in UP, the Moradabad carnage was different. The perpetrators of the violence belonged to the Provincial Armed Constabulary.
Similarly, violence against the members of the Scheduled Castes by armed gangs of the upper castes became more frequent and massacres were reported from across the state. And after every massacre, V P Singh used to give himself a month’s time to apprehend the culprits. The police did act. Between November 1980 and January 1982, the police claimed to have gunned down as many as 325 “dacoits” in different incidents of encounters. In most of those incidents, the dead turned out to be innocent young men. V P Singh finally quit in June 1982, owning moral responsibility, after dalits were massacred in Dastampur (near Kanpur).
In late 1984, after the elections that were held soon after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, V P Singh was among the few Sanjay Gandhi loyalists to be included in Rajiv Gandhi’s cabinet and given charge of the powerful Finance Ministry. As finance minister, the budget for 1985-86 was indeed a decisive moment insofar as the transition from state socialism to the free market was concerned. As finance minister, V P Singh also meant business when it came to enforcing the law. Thanks to the frequent raids by the Enforcement Directorate, indirect-tax receipts touched new highs, customs revenue went up and so too excise revenue. V P Singh could have kept his job as finance minister if he had let up on his raids on businesses and businessmen for tax evasion. But lobbying against him saw Rajiv Gandhi shift him to the Ministry of Defence in 1987, though it is said that Rajiv Gandhi also suspected that his finance minister was building up an independent base in the Congress Party.
V P Singh could have remained defence minister had he ignored the telex message from India’s ambassador in Bonn that commissions were paid in the HDW submarine deal. (His enthusiasm to pursue the HDW deal and track down the commission trail (Rs 30 crore at that time) dissipated when he became prime minister in 1989.) His resignation was, sought for by the prime minister after he had ordered a departmental enquiry into the alleged payoffs in the HDW submarine deal. And the Bofors scam, in fact, was the central issue in the Allahabad by-elections of 1988 when V P Singh as head of the Jan Morcha made his name. V P Singh emerged as a knight in shining armour in the crusade against corruption.
As prime minister of the National Front government, V P Singh did show a lot of commitment to unravelling the truth in the Bofors scandal. And not as much insofar as the HDW deal was concerned where the needle of suspicion pointed to Arun Nehru, one of Singh’s fellow travellers from the Congress to the Janata Dal and a minister in V P Singh’s cabinet.
V P Singh, nevertheless, will be remembered most of all for the decision of is National Front (NF) government to implement parts of the Mandal Commission recommendations when he was prime minister. Even if the Janata Dal had promised to implement the recommendations of the Mandal Commission in its manifesto for the 1989 elections, it was not thought of until when the party and the government landed in a crisis caused by the dismissal of Devi Lal on 1 August 1990. Under pressure to reinvent the Janata Dal’s social identity, V P Singh pulled out the Mandal Commission report from the cupboard. Neither had the Janata Dal nor the National Front allies thought of the Mandal report until August 1990.
Similarly, it was not as if that the idea of reservation in jobs for the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) was first thought of by the Mandal Commission. The principle was conceived and implemented by various state governments from1967 onwards and the commission report pertained only to central government jobs. But then, V P Singh was aware that the relevance of implementing the Mandal Commission report, at that time, was not merely in terms of reserving a few thousand jobs in the central government but one that would alter the political discourse of the country. His constant refrain was that the political discourse after Mandal had been changed forever.
One of the reasons for the rise of V P Singh during the 1980s may well have been the demise of almost all the veterans of the Janata Party. Charan Singh, JagjiwanRam and KarpooriThakur had passed away in the few months before the Janata Dal was conceived. With Morarji Desai having bid farewell to party politics, the only one to challenge V P Singh’s claim to be the leader of the opposition and therefore as a non-Congress prime minister was Chandrashekhar.
V P Singh could be called a pragmatist or a man without scruples. His willingness to put “pragmatism” above principles was evident, perhaps for the first time, when he decided to keep Arif Mohammed Khan out of the campaign in the Allahabad by-elections in June 1988. Arif Khan had at that time “enraged” the fundamentalists among the Muslim community for having opposed the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986 and had walked out of Rajiv Gandhi’s cabinet. He was among those who constituted the core of the Jan Morcha from which V P Singh launched himself as a non-Congress leader. And yet, VPSingh was willing to keep Arif Khan out of the campaign in Allahabad and did not mind Syed Shahabuddin, then in the Janata Party and a vocal supporter of the 1986 Act, campaigning for him there.
V P Singh’s approach to politics as the art of the possible and his involvement in the intrigues behind the scene, in which he was a willing participant during the week between 26 November and 2 December 1989 all to become India’s eighth prime minister, were at that time not frowned on as opportunism.
In 1989, he played games to claim the job and steered a motley crowd consisting of Arun Nehru, Arif Mohammed Khan, Vidya Charan Shukla and Mufti Mohammed Sayeedtoeliminate Chandrashekharfrom the race. He was willing to indulge anyone and everyone including Devi Lal, another ex-Congressman and Haryana leader, to be chosen for the top political job.
V P Singh was obliged to Devi Lal for the prime minister’s job and hence allowed the Haryana patriarch (whom he had made deputy prime minister) to anoint his son O P Chautala as chief minister of Haryana. He remained a passive onlooker when Chautala crossed all limits by rigging and unleashing violence during a by-election in Mehem constituency in 1990. V P Singh acted only after Devi Lal released a letter purportedly written by him implicating Arun Nehru in the Bofors deal. The letter turned out to be forged and he recommended to the president R Venkataraman that the deputy prime minister be dismissed.
Similarly, V P Singh indulged Mufti Mohammed Sayeed too. It was the Mufti’s idea to appoint Jagmohan as governor of Jammu and Kashmir in late 1989. The end game was clear: To provoke Farooq Abdullah to protest and resign as chief minister. By appointing Jagmohan, V P Singh also pleased the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on whose support his NF government depended for survival. A day after Jagmohan was appointed governor, over 100 people were killed in an attack by security forces in Gawakadal. The NF government’s prime minister let things drift. He had Jagmohan removed only when pressure was brought on him after the indiscriminate firing by the police on 21 May 1990, at the mourners of Mirwaiz Maulavi Farooq killing at least 50 people. And even then he agreed to nominate Jagmohan to the Rajya Sabha. This was one of the many instances of his penchant to do the balancing act.
V P Singh was also guilty of accommodating some of those known to have been corrupt. An example was when he put Chimanbhai Patel in charge to steer the Janata Dal in Gujarat. He become the chief minister in March 1990. Patel, it may be noted, had to quit as chief minister in 1974 in the wake of the student movement in Gujarat and was perceived to have been among the most corrupt chief ministers at that time. And V P Singh did not protest against his return despite the fact that the Jan Morcha and the Janata Dal were born out of a campaign against corruption in high places.
If the long-standing Kashmir issue exploded during his tenure and if he did little to resolve the issue, his response to the Babri-Ram Janmabhoomi agitation was woefully inadequate. The minority NF government was dependent on the BJP for support and V P Singh never tried to take on the BJP on the growing violence of the agitation. Stung by Mandal, L K Advani, unleashed his rath yatra to regain ground. V P Singh allowed Advani’s yatra to travel across India before he finally had it stopped – through Lalu Yadav – in Bihar. That decision brought down the NF government, but it was a decision taken too late.
While V P Singh did cut his principles to suit political exigencies of the time, unlike most of his contemporaries and those who have come after him he was not a permanent aspirant for political office. He refused to be anointed once again as prime minister in May 1996 of yet another non-Congress government at the centre after the defeat of the Narasimha Rao government, V P Singh was convinced that the reality in May 1996 was very different from that in December 1989. By declining the job when it was offered to him on a platter by M Karunanidhi, Chandrababu Naidu, Deve Gowda, Biju Patnaik and other regional leaders, V P Singh had travelled a long way from 1989.
In 1996, however, Singh had the benefit of hindsight. He had realised, by that time, the perils of a balancing act that was necessary to head a coalition of disparate groups. He was also conscious of the fact that the Janata Dal, the party that was founded around his personality in October 1988, was now fragmented beyond repair. And he proved the sceptics wrong by simply refusing to even hear the various leaders who went to him offering the prime minister’s job. To be fair, long before the May 1996 general elections the former prime minister had maintained that he was not in the reckoning for any office. And he remained steadfast about that decision. This was V P Singh, an extraordinary politician who changed the nature of Indian politics permanently during his short stint as prime minister.
V P Singh came into the limelight as the darling of the middle class, but it turned against him for Mandal and never forgave him.
He was, therefore, never given the recognition for the many things he did as a politician, even if his prime ministership had nothing to distinguish itself beyond Mandal. His political behaviour was a bundle of contradictions and compromises, yet it cannot be said that what drove him was a permanent thirst for high office. V P Singh remained until the closing years of his life an astute observer of the political scene but he had no political base and died alone, if not in isolation, from cancer that dogged him for more than a decade.