When Kalyan Singh was made chief minister in June 1991 of India’s politically crucial state Uttar Pradesh, it was an audacious gamble. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had swept to power in the state for the first time, more than doubling its seats in the Assembly.
After three decades now, this may not seem extraordinary, when a BJP prime minister, who is himself from a backward caste, openly vaunts the large number of lower-caste central ministers in his Cabinet after the recent reshuffle. But at that time, it was the party’s first social engineering experiment to widen its mass base, which was traditionally dominated by the Brahmin-Thakur-Bania combine.
An Unusual Phase in UP Politics
The meteoric rise of a backward-caste leader such as Kalyan Singh, who was sponsored by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) ideologue and BJP chief strategist KN Govindacharya and backed by the all-powerful party president Lal Krishna Advani, happened in an unusual and turbulent phase in politics.
The then Prime Minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh had just dropped the Mandal Commission bomb to woo the huge backward – and lower-caste –electoral vote bank, which sparked off bloody riots led by upper-caste students across north India. Fighting for political survival, the BJP swiftly fired its own weapon nicknamed ‘Kamandal’, which symbolised the Ram Janmabhoomi movement aimed at building a grand temple at Ayodhya and removing the Babri Masjid that stood in the way.
The move was a political masterstroke that appealed to Hindus across castes, including the backward castes, which were particularly reverential to ‘Ram Lalla’.
As the Advani-led crusade to restore the temple gathered steam, making a backward caste leader the spearhead of the Uttar Pradesh Assembly election gave credence to the BJP’s new embrace of the backward castes.
Despite the disquiet and grumbling in the party’s upper-caste leadership against the prized post going to a backward-class leader, they were persuaded that it was largely a symbolic move.
Unfortunately, for Kalyan Singh, his elevation did not last long. Barely a year-and-a-half after he came to power, Singh was forced to resign; his police remained spectators while Hindu zealots demolished the Babri Masjid, defying his government’s solemn promise to the Supreme Court that no harm would come to the shrine. Worse was to follow. In the mid-term state Assembly polls next year, the BJP failed to get a clear majority despite being the largest party. Every other party, including the Congress, ganged up to support a minority Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party (SP-BSP) government led by Mulayam Singh Yadav to stop the BJP from coming back.
A Slew of Twists in the Tale
To compound Singh’s miseries, when the shaky SP-BSP coalition collapsed two years later, the BJP, along with the Congress, chose to prop up an even more minority-based BSP government led by the young Dalit firebrand Mayawati, who he detested. Despite repeated entreaties against the collaboration, Singh was flatly snubbed by BJP stalwart Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who, along with the then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, was the architect of the move geared to weaken Mulayam Singh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh.
The Mayawati experiment lasted just four months, pushing Uttar Pradesh into a long bout of Governor’s rule. Two years later, the BJP was once again hobnobbing with the BSP, forming a rotational government, with Mayawati ruling for the first six months and then handing over power to Kalyan Singh; it also involved equal representation in government for both parties. Furious at this humiliation despite his seniority and much larger support in the Assembly, Singh walked out of a press conference held by Vajpayee to announce the deal.
Coming Full Circle
The second arrangement with Mayawati also failed. Although she did hand over power to Singh after six months, she withdrew support soon after. But Singh managed to remain in power, displaying political shrewdness and muscle that was tacitly helped by Mayawati’s other bête noire, Mulayam Singh. However, this new aggressive approach unsettled the Brahmin-Thakur-Bania leadership of the BJP, and within two years, Singh was embroiled in an unseemly controversy over his proximity to Kusum Rai, a local BJP woman activist who he was said to have endowed with undue favours.
After being removed from the chief minister’s post, the embittered Singh left the BJP, actively sabotaging the party in both parliamentary and Assembly polls, including Vajpayee’s own constituency Lucknow. He also publicly criticised the then prime minister and called him “weak”, describing his government as “corrupt and ridden with scandals”. He rejoined the party in 2004, only to leave again in 2009 after a quarrel with the party leadership. Later, a short-lived alliance with Mulayam Singh failed, as the SP Muslim voters associated Kalyan Singh with the demolition of the Babri Masjid.
With the rise of Narendra Modi, Singh finally made his peace with the BJP and was rewarded with a five-year-long governorship of Rajasthan. Interestingly, with the Uttar Pradesh election round the corner, a call from the prime minister and personal visits by top BJP leaders as Singh lay on his deathbed underlined the party’s attempts to resolve the caste jigsaw puzzle, three decades after it first brought him to political limelight.
(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist and the author of ‘Behenji: A Political Biography of Mayawati’. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)