'Fate has never made available the low lying fruit for me'
It was 1966. Bihar’s then chief minister and revenue minister were touring a tribal district. Following a complaint against the deputy commissioner (DC) — a 30-something 1960 batch IAS officer — the two politicians publicly berated him. “Please don’t shout at me,” the state’s youngest DC retorted. “I can become a minister but you can’t become an IAS officer.”
The officer did become a minister, 24 years later. “I felt I must stand up for what I considered to be my honour,” Yashwant Sinha now says, sitting in his book-lined study in his central Delhi residence, dressed in a dark blue shirt and white trousers.
He’s no hot-headed 30-year-old now, but 25 years after he quit the IAS to join politics 71-year-old Sinha — who started his multiple ministerial innings as the Union finance minister in the Chandrashekhar government — won’t take slights lightly.
On June 12, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) realised this when Sinha resigned from all party posts, and wrote to the party president objecting to the manner of selecting leaders of the parliamentary party.
Earlier, Sinha declined a ministerial berth because he felt slighted by the V. P. Singh government. In 1989, Singh invited Sinha to join the government but did not make him a cabinet minister. When Sinha reached Rashtrapati Bhavan and found he was to be only a minister of state, he turned around and drove off. “It didn’t take me any time to decide that this was not acceptable to me,” he says.
His resignation from the IAS was also triggered by an incident that hurt him, though he had anyway been contemplating quitting the service, tired as he was of pushing files. “I felt there was no value left. I wanted to paint on a wider canvas,” he explains. In 1983, Sinha, who was managing director of the Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC), tried hard to avert a strike called by the Congress-affiliated DTC union. The strike was broken in a day, but one employee died in police firing, sparking an uproar in Parliament. “I felt I was being buffeted from all sides and was completely defenceless. I didn’t want to be defenceless in life. I wanted to stand up in my own defence on such occasions, which I could not do as a civil servant.”
His ministerial stints had many such occasions. As finance minister in 1990-1991, he had to take “the toughest decision of my political life” to mortgage India’s gold reserves to meet its international loan obligations. “There was nothing I could do. People would say I will give you $500 million, $1 billion. All of them were shady. Even those who were not shady were not serious.” He was never allowed to live that down. “Administratively and emotionally it was a tough decision and politically it could have been disastrous. It is a godsend that I have survived in politics,” Sinha says.
And then there were the allegations against him during his stints in North Block during the National Democratic Alliance government. “My family was under attack. What can be more demeaning than implying I am in league with my daughter-in-law to make money?” (It was alleged that some tax-related orders against foreign funds were modified to suit a firm where his daughter-in-law worked.) Tired, he asked for a change in ministry and became external affairs minister, though he regrets it was made to look as if he was shunted out. “I was up against very powerful vested interests. And I felt they would make life more difficult for me through further attacks on my character. Nothing hurts me more than an attack on my integrity. And that is why I thought it was time I moved on.”
The urge to quit the service had first struck this ninth offspring of a Patna-based lawyer’s 11 children, in the late-1960s. Still smarting from the 1966 incident, he approached Jayaprakash Narayan (JP), who offered him Rs 500 a month and a two-room accommodation. Sinha decided to take it up, to his family’s dismay. But JP asked Sinha to come with his wife, Nilima. As JP’s wife hugged Nilima and welcomed her into the family, JP noticed a tear in her eye. He later wrote to Sinha pointing out that he would need his wife’s unstinting — and not reluctant — support in his work and told him to become financially secure before joining him.
Sinha stayed on in the IAS but always felt he had a promise to keep to JP. When he finally quit the IAS in 1984, he told his family — which was still against the idea — only after he had put in his papers. His daughter was married by then and two sons were studying at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, and he felt he could now take the risk.
Politics wasn’t on the radar then. In 1957, after getting a taste of Bihar’s caste politics when he had contested for a post in the debating society of Patna College, he had sworn never to contest elections. Social service was what he planned to do, and even turned down a job offer from industrialist K.K. Birla.
It was then that Sinha came close to Chandrashekhar, when the two worked together for the victims of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. Chandrashekhar believed that politics was the only way to be an agent of change in a democracy. So Sinha joined the erstwhile Janata Party and contested the 1984 elections from Hazaribagh. The second election in his life was also not a very pleasant experience — he got a piffling 10,000 votes.
That’s when the reality of quitting the IAS hit him. Money was a problem — he only had his pension and rent from a house in Patna — and home was a barsaati in his father-in-law’s house in Delhi. Political life was tough — padayatras in Hazaribagh and having to meet “lowly-placed officials who would show me no respect.” Things improved when he got into the Rajya Sabha in 1988, entitling him to a house and a salary.
In 1991, Chandrashekhar’s Samajwadi Janata Party was in a shambles after having won only five seats in the elections. There were attempts to revive the old Janata Dal but Sinha was not impressed. “The party had been taken over by people I knew I could not get along with.” One of them was Lalu Yadav, and there were stories about how he insulted senior party leaders. “I knew that any attack on my honour or attempt to insult me would not be acceptable to me. And again I would be at a loose end.” The only choices for him were the Congress and the BJP. “There was a compromise either way. I preferred the BJP, much to the disappointment of the so-called secular crowd in politics and the media.”
The person who brought him into the party in 1993 was L.K. Advani — ironically the person who is being blamed for many of the issues Sinha raised in his June letter. He ducks a question about Advani but says he is sad to see the party change its attitude to workers. He recalls that in 1995, party president Advani himself spoke to the sitting MLA of Ranchi to ask him to vacate the seat for Sinha. But in 2005, nobody spoke to a long-time worker who was Speaker of the Jharkhand Assembly when he was denied a ticket. The man later died heartbroken.
Sinha found that human touch lacking in his own case, when he was diagnosed with cancer of the lymph in 2006. Sinha was touched when Chandrashekhar, who himself was battling cancer and could barely walk, came to visit him. “But no senior leader from the party came to see me.” Only Vajpayee would enquire regularly about him. “I think six years in government have changed the party as well as the workers and leaders.”
But he doesn’t regret joining the BJP. “I think it is a great party, great ideology and we need to work to strengthen both.” He wants the party to prepare young leaders for the next election, all those “who are above 55 or the retirement age of government” should constitute a council of seniors to advise the younger leadership but not aspire for any post, he says.
Two handicaps are to blame for most of his problems. One is his aloof nature and failure to cultivate the media, which he attributes to his many years in the bureaucracy. The second is his bad judgement of people. “It is written in my fate that people I help will become my worst enemies.”
There are few regrets, though. “Fate has been kind to me, and I have played a much bigger role than I ever imagined.” But there’s one complaint. “Fate has never made available the low lying fruit for me. I’ve always had to struggle hard to pluck the fruit right at the top.”
He’s staying away from the fruit for now. He’s not writing any more letters either. Instead, he and his wife — a well-known writer of children’s fiction — are writing a novel set amidst Naxalite unrest.