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V P Singh (1931-2008)

An assessment of the political life of V P Singh, India's eighth prime minister, who died last week and whose position in India's politics has never been given the recognition it deserves.

COMMENTARYEconomic & Political Weekly EPW december 6, 200821V P Singh (1931-2008)V Krishna AnanthAn assessment of the political life of V P Singh, India’s eighth prime minister, who died last week and whose position in India’s politics has never been given the recognition it deserves.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 per-sonalitywho 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 pro-moted 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 November 2008, he 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 in the 1960s. He remained in the Congress during the Emergency andafter 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. Later in June 1980, V P Singh was made chief minister of Uttar Pradesh (UP) a post he held for two years. During his tenure, 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 asUP 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 inUP, 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 Janu-ary 1982, the police claimed to havegunned down as many as 325 “dacoits”indiffer-ent 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). As Finance MinisterIn late 1984, after the elections that were held soon after Indira Gandhi’s assassina-tion, 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 marketwas concerned.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 sub-marine 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 depart-mental enquiry into the alleged payoffs in theHDW submarine deal. And theBofors scam, in fact, was the central issueinthe V Krishna Ananth ( is an advocate and a commentator based in Chennai.
COMMENTARYdecember 6, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly22MS Ad
COMMENTARYEconomic & Political Weekly EPW december 6, 200823Allahabad by-elections of 1988 when V P Singh as head of the Jan Morcha made his name. V P Singh emerged as a knightin shining armour in the crusade against corruption. As Prime MinisterAs prime minister of the National Front (NF) government, V P Singh did show a lot ofcommitment to unravelling the truth in the Bofors scandal. V P Singh, nevertheless, will be remem-bered most of all for the decision of his 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 recommendationsof the Mandal Commis-sion in its manifesto for the 1989 elections, it was not thought of until when the party and the government landed in a crisis causedbythedismissalof Devi Lal on 1 Au-gust 1990. Under pressure to reinvent the JanataDal’ssocial identity, V P Singh pulled out the Mandal Commission report fromthecupboard.Neither had the Janata Dal nor the NF 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 from 1967 onwards and the commission report pertained only to central government jobs. But, V P Singh was aware that the relevance of implementing the Mandal Commission report, atthat time, was not merely in terms of reserving a few thousand jobs in the central govern-ment but one that would alterthepolitical discourse of the country. His constant re-frain was that the political discourse after Mandal had been changed forever.V P Singh could be called a pragmatist or a man without scruples. His willingness to put “pragmatism” above principleswas 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, V P Singh 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 Decem-ber 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 Sayeed to eliminate Chandrashekhar from 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 indulged Mufti Mohammed Sayeed too. It was the Mufti’s idea to ap-point 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. Byappointing Jagmohan, V P Singh also pleased the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on whose support his NF government de-pended for survival. A day after Jagmohan was appointed governor, over100people were killed in an attack by securityforcesin Gawakadal. TheNF government’sprime 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 mourn-ers 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.If the long-standing Kashmir issue ex-ploded during his tenure and if he did lit-tle 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 finallyhaditstopped – through Lalu Yadav – in Bihar. That deci-sion 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 perma-nent 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 re-gional 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 nec-essary 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. To be fair, long before the May 1996 gen-eral elections the former prime minister had maintained that he was not inthe reck-oning for any office. And heremained 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 anastuteobserver of the political scene but he had no political base and died alone, if not in isolation, from a cancer that had dogged him for more than a decade.

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