New Delhi: On an April afternoon 17 years ago, in 2004, the small town of Jalore in Rajasthan, about 700 km southwest of Delhi, looked rather sleepy during an election month. There were some jeeps and auto-rickshaws with loudspeakers atop them blaring appeals to voters, but the usual excitement and commotion of a poll campaign was missing.
In a large bungalow, Congress candidate and former Union minister Buta Singh lay in bed, one of his plastered hands resting on a sling. His car had overturned a few days back. He wasn’t able to campaign, but looked confident. The reason — he had done a lot of work for the people, and his main rival was Susheela, wife of Andhra-born former BJP president Bangaru Laxman. Laxman had to quit unceremoniously three years before after he figured in a sting operation conducted by Tehelka magazine, ostensibly because he was taking bribes.
But Singh was proved wrong when the poll results were out. He had been banking on Laxman’s tainted political career, but he forgot his own. Atal Bihari Vajpayee had sacked Buta Singh from his council of ministers in 1998 for his alleged involvement in the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha bribery case.
How he had landed in the Vajpayee government, after 35 years in Congress, was a different story.
Controversy’s child in Indian politics
I, a reporter with the Hindustan Times then, had drawn my lessons from my interaction with Buta Singh — Never trust a politician’s instincts and take on elections.
A few months later, I was getting to learn why Singh was known as the controversy’s child in Indian politics. He, as the Bihar governor, was at the Centre of a big political controversy in January 2006.
Following a fractured mandate in February 2005 assembly election in Bihar, just when the BJP and the JD(U) claimed to have the numbers to form the government, Singh recommended dissolution of the assembly, ostensibly to prevent horse-trading. The Union Cabinet, headed by Dr Manmohan Singh, met at midnight, accepted the governor’s recommendation and faxed it to then President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam who was visiting Moscow. In January 2006, the Supreme Court gave a stinging indictment of the “whims and fancies” of the governor as well as the Union cabinet’s failure to verify the facts. As the Left parties, the UPA’s key allies, joined the chorus for Buta Singh’s ouster, Sonia Gandhi was left with no choice. For days, Buta Singh kept the Congress high command on tenterhooks before finally sending in his resignation.
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Indira-Rajiv Gandhi’s ‘hatchet man’
But 2005 was not the first time that Buta Singh had courted a controversy in going out of his way to try to please the Gandhi family. An Akali Dal leader-turned-Congressman, he had lost his political constituency in his home state of Punjab after he supported Operation Blue Star, which forced him to shift his political base to Rajasthan. He went on to become Rajiv Gandhi’s ‘hatchet man’ in late 1980s — especially during 1986-89, when he was the home minister.
He was instrumental in the ouster of many opposition CMs, including the dismissal of the Janaki Ramchandran government in Tamil Nadu in 1988, during the infamous battle for succession between her and Jayalalithaa. Rajiv Gandhi turned to Buta Singh when he needed to get rid of Congress chief ministers, such as Harideo Joshi in Rajasthan and Motilal Vora in Madhya Pradesh in 1988. Many Congressmen have always held a grudge against him — they point out that Buta Singh, Rajiv Gandhi’s home minister, likely laid the foundation for the BJP’s rise in future by facilitating shilanyas of a Ram temple at the disputed site in Ayodhya in 1989.
Although Buta Singh made his way up the ladder in the Congress as a ‘Yes’ man who would execute anything Indira or Rajiv Gandhi desired, he had a rather patchy equation with Sonia Gandhi. In 1998, he decided to contest as an Independent candidate from Jalore after Sitaram Kesri, the then party president, denied him the ticket. Singh went on to join the Vajpayee government soon after, but returned to the Congress two years later when Sonia was at the helm of affairs.
The 2005 Bihar misadventure appeared to have cast a shadow on their equations, although he was made the chairperson of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes in 2007. He chose to part ways with the Congress a couple of years later and went on to contest the next two Lok Sabha elections as an Independent candidate. In October 2015, he was back in the Congress, but by then Buta Singh was a shadow of his former self.
On Saturday, as Buta Singh passed away at 86, life went on as usual at 24, Akbar Road, the Congress headquarters where he proudly sat as the only AICC general secretary when Indira Gandhi was out of power in 1978-80. Singh made his own contributions to the strengthening of the Indian democracy, in a rather twisted way. Thanks to his 2005 misadventure as the governor, Sonia Gandhi-led Congress and the UPA government refrained from repeating the Bihar experiment in the next nine years.
Also read: Congress still wants to solve its problem with the problem — Gandhis. Solution is change