VP Singh: Why the Former PM Couldn’t Become a Political Star

The death of VP Singh was so anonymous that any leader would think twice before walking on his path.

Published
Opinion
5 min read
Former Prime Minister of India Vishwanath Pratap Singh should have been one of independent India’s brightest stars.
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Former prime minister of India Vishwanath Pratap Singh should have been one of Independent India's brightest stars, who fought the most difficult fight against political corruption, went up against the powers-that-be over brokerage in defence deals, posed the biggest challenge to the caste system and ruined his kidneys in the hunger strike against communal violence, to the extent that he lost his life due to kidney failure.

The death of the man was so alone and unheralded that any leader would think twice before walking on VP Singh’s path. No leader remembers Singh on his birth anniversary.

Some people do offer platitudes on social media, but this too is not a common practice.

The Socio-Political Life

The socio-political life of Singh is mainly divided into three parts.

  1. The first was emerging from a landlord family to join politics with the Congress and becoming the chief minister, then the finance minister and the defence minister of the country. Of this, his time as chief minister is known for his campaign against the rebels, while as finance minister and defence minister, he campaigned against corporate corruption and the brokerage in defence deals. During this period, he drifted away from the Congress.
  2. The second phase of his life was as prime minister, during which his most prominent, as well as the most controversial, step was to announce the implementation of the Mandal Commission. He also took steps like awarding the Bharat Ratna to Babasaheb Ambedkar, and giving a holiday on his birth anniversary, and going to the Golden Temple to apologise for Operation Blue Star. During this time he also came into direct confrontation with the Reliance company and stopped Dhirubhai Ambani from establishing control over Larsen and Toubro. He also refused to bow down to the BJP over the Ram Mandir issue and this led to the fall of his government.
  3. In the third phase of his life, Singh took the role of a saint. He started writing poems and tried his hand at painting. But in this time, he was also associated with social issues. In Delhi, he protested in the streets against the attempts to uproot slums and stood against communal violence.

Not a Political Hero?

Then, the question arises why Singh could not become a major hero in history. Where did he mess up? Rather, this question can be rephrased as to how and where did Indian history and society miss out on making him a superhero?

Both supporters and opponents of Singh need to understand one thing about him – up until leaving politics, Singh was first and foremost a leader, and like every leader, his goal was to be in power and at the peak of that power.

That is why all the work he did, from becoming the chief minister to being the prime minister, to staying on as prime minister, cannot be viewed from an apolitical lens. All the things that needs to be done to remain in power, the equations that have to be created in order to win elections, all the things that have to be arranged – there is no basis to believe that Singh may have deferred from all that.

The virtuousness of his own personal stand on communalism has little meaning when his government at the Centre ran with the support of the BJP. The BJP didn’t join the ministerial Cabinet because the Left’s support was also needed to run the government. But in Rajasthan, the BJP and the Janata Dal had a government together.

Whether circumstances made VP Singh do historic work or he did it himself, some people see him as a hero and some as a villain. Problem is that those people who see him as a hero, are not people proficient in creating an image.

Hence his image as a hero gets supressed, while the image as a villain emerges, since the people involved in image creation are mainly those who are angry with Singh.
  1. Singh’s heroism is in the fact that he made a national issue of the long-standing brokering and corruption in defence deals. But he couldn’t take the issue to its logical conclusion. During his short tenure, he did not take any concrete steps for a quick investigation into corruption cases in defence deals. That is why it is alleged that he used the corruption charges for political gain.
  2. When the BJP started a campaign to spread communalism in the name of the Ram temple, he stood up against it. For this reason, the BJP withdrew its support to his minority government and the government fell.
  3. He brought together the over three thousand backward castes in India under one umbrella. He tied up these castes in the common interest of reservation. Meanwhile, BSP leader Kanshiram was running a mass movement to have the Mandal Commission’s report implemented.
    But just as his voice was beginning to be heard, VP Singh implemented the Commission report enforcing Article 340 of the Constitution, which had been part of the Constitution since 26 January 1950. The Article had raised the hopes of more than half of the country’s population, but wasn’t enforced on the ground. Special provisions were present in the Article for the socially and educationally backward classes. Mandal Commission had been constituted on the basis of this Article.

Had another leader been prime minister, would he also have implemented the Mandal Commission report under the same circumstances? I believe not. This could only have been done by Vishwanath Pratap Singh.

However, we will never have an answer to such questions. What we know is that the implementation of the Mandal Commission’s report happened at the hands of VP Singh.

Mandal Commission to be Blamed?

However, over the same point, Vishwanath Pratap Singh became a villain.

As soon as the Mandal Commission was implemented, the intellectual class, which was a fan of VP Singh due to his anti-corruption and anti-Congress stand, turned its back on him. Score of articles and cartoons against him were published.

Since the Mandal Commission had divided the society into reservation supporters and reservation opposers, journalists, writers and intellectuals were also divided into two camps.

There was a pro-reservation intellectual camp, but it had barely a handful of people. But the anti-reservation camp was big and full. In the battle of image creation, VP Singh lost completely.

There was another problem for VP Singh. His emergence was happening at a time when the middle castes and to a lesser extent Dalits had started looking for their share in north Indian politics.

He had the goodwill of the backward classes but they wanted a leader of their own castes at all costs. If VP Singh implemented the Mandal Commission to get support of the backward classes, that didn’t really happen.

In this way he lost his upper middle class base, but the backward castes for whose sake he did all this got in line behind leaders of their own castes. From a political standpoint, VP Singh was left all alone.

But because of this Singh’s importance does not diminish. Unknowingly, Singh changed the face of Indian politics. In response to the Mandal Commission, the BJP took out the Ram Rath Yatra. After that Indian politics wasn’t the same.

After the Mandal commission the backward castes began to be more visible and organised in Indian politics. Because of that society also changed. Mandal Commission’s other recommendation – reservation in higher education – was implemented in 2006 by another Thakur leader Arjun Singh.

This made the face of Indian campuses more democratic than before. The doors of campuses opened up for people from all societies and castes. However, history proved to be just as ruthless with Arjun Singh as well. But that's another story.

(This piece was originally published on Quint Hindi, and has been translated by Mariam Shaheen. You can read the original piece here.)

(Dileep C Mandal is a senior journalist. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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