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A MORAL MAN, A FAILURE - Not good in politics, V.P. Singh's success lay elsewhere

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Cutting Corners Ashok Mitra   |     |   Published 19.12.08, 12:00 AM

The distant 1950s, Vinoba Bhave and bhoodan were still taken at their face value. For the talukdars of Uttar Pradesh, it was a rollickingly joyous time. Each one’s eye on a Congress ticket for a parliamentary seat, they would line up to gift away land to the Acharya. On several occasions, the donated land, it was subsequently discovered, either happened to be disputed property, with pending court proceedings, or belonged to someone else. One talukdar stood out in this dubious crowd. He was the young Raja of Manda, Vishwanath Pratap Singh, not yet quite out of his twenties. He gifted away most of his land, land that genuinely belonged to him. His compeers would, behind his back, make fun of his naïveté. That did not ruffle him. He was well-bred, well-read and imbued with loads of idealism. Perhaps he suffered from a bad conscience as well, living in a sea of luxury while all around it was indescribable destitution and poverty. Jawaharlal Nehru was prime minister, and had a bewitching influence on the young idealist. It was therefore natural for Vishwanath Pratap Singh to sign the Congress pledge and proudly don the Gandhi cap. He was not the only feudal scion to do so. But, once again unlike most of the others, he had no political ambition; he preferred to be a quiet backroom boy in the party precincts.

He was not allowed to stick to his preference. As the years rolled by, the Congress became more and more wobbly. It was at no time short of either busybodies or sycophants, but it lacked a competent brigade which could prove its mettle in administration. Indira Gandhi, the shrewdest of politicians, had a sharp eye and could sort out the wheat from the chaff. She drew V.P. Singh into her closer circle. If one had sprung from Oudh valley, grown up in those dream-laden seasons of the inter-war years and now and then dropped in at Anand Bhavan in Allahabad, reverence for the Nehru-Gandhis could not easily peter out. Vishwanath Pratap Singh’s loyalty withstood the buffeting of the Emergency. Indira Gandhi was back in power in the 1980s. V.P. succumbed to her coaxing and plunged into governance.

Suddenly, it was limelight for him. The lady soon picked him for the chief ministerial slot in UP. Those were trying times in the state: anti-Muslim riots instigated by the state constabulary, besides allegations, often genuine, of the police gunning down innocent people in the name of anti-robbery operations. V.P. fought hard against the malignant forces that were a-gathering, but did not altogether succeed. There was still no question that he could be firm when firmness was called for. He blended this firmness with both informality and an innate sense of courtesy hitherto altogether unknown in the prevalent administrative structure. After about two years as chief minister, he quit on a moral ground: scores of Dalits were massacred on the outskirts of Kanpur and he was unable to give them protection. He was, he openly admitted, a failure as the state’s administrative head and had no right to continue. Indira Gandhi failed to budge him.

It was a ludicrous phenomenon: a man of principle in the muddy waters of Indian politics in the final quarter of the 20th century. Such a man had to live a perilous existence. Indira Gandhi’s elder son, installed as prime minister after his mother’s assassination, committed two successive errors of judgment. He named Vishwanath Pratap Singh as the country’s finance minister. V.P. was picked because of his competence, but the underlying assumption — unswerving loyalty to the dynasty — must have been a factor too. The newly installed finance minister, foolhardy to the core, ordered raids against tax-evading industrialists and businessmen who contributed heavily to Congress party coffers.

The prime minister hastily shifted V.P. to the defence portfolio. A man of principle, however, spells trouble wherever he goes. V.P. Singh could not swallow Bofors. Were he a run-of-the-mill politician, he might have been persuaded to reach a practical conclusion: a political party needs funds, it is legitimate for a party in power to collect funds by availing of the opportunity being in government provides; a commission claimed — and conceded — on defence contracts is a reality all over the world, it could hardly be otherwise in India. V.P. Singh, nonetheless, considered Bofors to be an outrage. He chose to opt for integrity, scuttling loyalty to the Nehru-Gandhis. There must have been a searing of the heart as he reached the decision, but a man of principle could not afford to waver where the issue was one of morality.

He had his hour of glory and found himself installed as prime minister in 1989. He could hardly be a happy man though. It was not possible for a conscientious person to be happy while wearing a crown of thorns. V.P. was heading a precarious coalition with the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Left lending support from outside. Sorting out the heterogeneities within the government was an exhausting exercise. In this situation, traditional wisdom would suggest that he not disturb any hornets’ nests. But V.P.’s thoughts always ran contrary to conventional wisdom. Despite its several negative features, the Mandal Commission report, he was convinced, made one essential point: a substantial segment of the nation continued to be deprived of the opportunities a free and democratic India was supposed to provide every citizen. The other backward classes was not the only group wronged, but why not make a beginning by at least offering them a gesture?

Implementing the Mandal Commission’s recommendations was akin to opening Pandora’s box. V.P. proceeded to commit the folly. In the ensuing confusion, there was no dearth of people to put a knife into Vishwanath Pratap Singh. The system has been at the receiving end of successive seismic shocks ever since. The centrestage no longer belonged to him. His government fell, he withdrew himself with great dignity and was no part of the conspiracies and double-dealings that have been a constant in Indian politics over the past decade- and-a-half. This was also the time a terminal illness crept into his body; he somehow survived with the help of regular dialysis and bouts of rest. He would now and then return to the arena to battle for public causes he strongly believed in: communal harmony, protection for the nation’s minorities, the dignity of human rights, ensuring a new era for the adivasis and the Dalits, the most rightful inheritors of the great terrain known as India.

Meanwhile, the Janata Dal he had once led had splintered; nincompoops, careerists and opportunists had gone their different ways. Vishwanath Pratap Singh tilled a lonely furrow: he would, however, be there once he felt that the cause was right.

He passed away on November 27 last. It was, one might think, the worst possible day he could have chosen to take his bow, with the nation in the grip of the trauma of global terror. On the other hand, he would conceivably have liked nothing better. He was a man of principle, he was also a man of great civilization, with intense distaste for flamboyance.

Well, the departed gentleman was, on general reckoning, an unsuccessful politician. And yet, he, more than anybody else, was responsible for the shift of the nation’s centre of political gravity, initially to the OBCs and subsequently, through an inexorable chain effect, to the resurgent Dalits. Success has a weird connotation.


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