For some academicians, Vishwanath Pratap Singh was a politician who ushered in India the silent revolution by empowering the underclass, especially the Other Backward Castes. For others, this particular act of India’s 7th prime minister was a “wretched display of cynicism” to provoke casteism.
In August 1990, V.P. Singh tabled the recommendations of the long-forgotten Mandal Commission report in Parliament, paving the way for reservation for the OBC community in central government jobs.
While this expectedly caused a lot of heartburn among the upper castes who turned to violent protests, it remains a puzzle even today why V.P. Singh was never eulogised or praised by the OBC community, despite fulfilling a promise that had been gathering dust for over a decade.
Long career, many contributions
V.P. Singh (25 June 1931 – 27 November 2008) had a long, illustrious career in Indian politics. Starting out as the vice-president of the students’ union at the Allahabad University, V.P. Singh went on to wear many hats – chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, prime minister, defence minister, finance minister, Rajya Sabha MP, Lok Sabha MP from three constituencies.
His contributions to India’s political and social life are many but he should be remembered primarily for three reasons:
- V.P. Singh made corruption a national issue. He went hammer and tongs at the Rajiv Gandhi government over the controversial Bofors gun deal, and even resigned from the Cabinet to take his fight against corruption to the streets. In an interview to Shekhar Gupta in 2005, he said he had resigned because of his differences with then-PM Rajiv Gandhi on the inquiry related to HDW submarine deal. The corruption in defence deals became the central issue in the 1989 Lok Sabha election, which the Congress eventually lost, making it the first instance in India’s political history where corruption decided the fate of an incumbent government at the Centre.
- He made the Indian democracy more inclusive by making the OBC community a partner in nation-building. “No section can be uplifted merely by money. They can develop only if they have a share in power and we are prepared to provide this share,” Singh had said in his Independence Day speech in 1990. Singh eventually ensured 27 per cent quota for the OBCs, doing the unthinkable.
- Although his government was taking the support of the Left Front and the BJP at the same time, V.P. Singh never compromised his secular beliefs. The fate of his government was sealed after BJP leader Lal Krishna Advani was arrested in Bihar, which was then ruled by Lalu Prasad. The BJP withdrew support to V.P. Singh, and his government fell on 10 November 1990.
Paying the price for Mandal
Until V.P. Singh implemented the Mandal Commission’s report, he was a darling of India’s middle class and the poster boy of news media. But everything changed with the OBC reservation. Human rights activist K. Balagopal had described the turbulent ’90s in an EPW article: “The entire forward caste Hindu community has suddenly become a solid rock. Fundamentalists and seculars, Marxists and Gandhians, urban and rural, have all been united as nothing else would have united them.”
With the middle class backing out, V.P. Singh soon became the villain – one of the most hated and ridiculed politicians of his time. Narrating this sudden change in the attitude of the middle class, V.P. Singh said, “You can see that my every action before Mandal was great, excellent, and everything I did after amounted to the greatest disservice to India… Though my leg was broken, I hit the goal.” In the same vein he said that a price has to be paid for whatever you do. “There is certain price tag to everything, and you have to be prepared to pay that price. You cannot get the thing and then regret paying. The price…Mandal implement kiya to uska daam bhi dena pada.”
But while it’s understood why the upper castes would ditch V.P. Singh since all affirmative actions would target the social hierarchy, hitting at their hegemony, it’s not easy to comprehend why the OBC community would remain cold to him as well.
One reason is that V.P. Singh had never been a leader of the OBC cause. His act of implementing the Mandal Commission’s report caused a rupture even in his political life. By then, the OBC leadership had already taken shape and those leaders were not ready to cede any ground to V.P. Singh, a ‘Thakur leader’ who had taken up what no other politician would dare touch.
In Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, OBC leaders with the Lohia-Socialist ideologies like Mulayam Singh Yadav, Lalu Prasad, Sharad Yadav, Nitish Kumar were well entrenched in India’s political system and V.P. Singh did not have the political wherewithal to win over these leaders’ support base. A section of the OBC community was with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) while many were also associated with BJP leaders like Kalyan Singh, Uma Bharati, Vinay Katiyar, Shivraj Singh Chouhan and so on.
This was the time when India was ravaged by the Ram Mandir movement and the backward caste members had to choose between being a Hindu and an OBC – they chose the latter.
That’s why an upper caste leader like V.P. Singh had little space to negotiate. When he lost the support of media, he did not have any tool to galvanise the goodwill he had generated among the OBCs. The attendance of journalists at his press conferences waned. He was reduced to a single column even in his obituaries.
The net result was that V.P. Singh lost his core constituency of the upper caste middle class and failed to muster any support among the constituency for which he had taken his biggest political risk.
He left politics, started writing poetry and took to painting. In the later phase of his public life, he fought against the demolition of slums and also sat on a hunger strike against communal riots, doing irreparable damage to his kidney. He died of renal impairment.
It is the journey of a politician with whom history has done great injustice.
The author is an adjunct professor, Dept of Mass Communications at Makhanlal Chaturvedi National University of Journalism and Communication (MCNUJC), Bhopal. He is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi Magazine, and has authored books on media and sociology. Views are personal.