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Ajit Singh, IIT engineer-turned-master of power politics who could pick & drop allies at will

Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) leader Chaudhary Ajit Singh succumbed to Covid Thursday. He was 82.

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New Delhi: On a winter morning in 2018, it was a relaxed, smiling Chaudhary Ajit Singh who welcomed me to his ‘rented’ accommodation in Delhi’s Vasant Kunj area, a farmhouse on the Green Avenue.

As we settled in cane chairs, he wanted me to first enjoy the tea and warm up. But I had too many questions on my mind to beat around the bush: What’s cooking between Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav and how does he (Singh) plan to add flavour to it?

It was days before the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Samajwadi Party (SP) chiefs would declare their alliance in the ensuing Lok Sabha election. Ajit Singh would formally join them a few days later.

The seasoned politician that he was, the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) chief knew what I was fishing for. But he wouldn’t say anything more than “let’s see what happens”.

He wasn’t the same self-assured leader we used to meet at his 12, Tughlaq Road bungalow in Lutyens Delhi, which he so desperately and unsuccessfully wanted to retain even after ceasing to be a parliamentarian in 2014. He had lived there for 36 years.

In the farmhouse outside the Lutyens zone, Ajit Singh looked out of place but retained his optimism. He spoke about how the Jat-Muslim divide in western Uttar Pradesh, the fallout of the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots, wouldn’t work in 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

As it turned out a few months later, it was more of his wishful thinking. The division between Jats and Muslims, the RLD’s core vote-bank, had driven his party to the political margins in western UP.

On Thursday, as he succumbed to the Covid-19 infection at the age of 82, his mission to bring the two communities together was still in the works. He was seeking to build on the farmers’ agitation against three Central laws to bring the two communities together and regain the RLD’s lost ground. It wasn’t the first time in his 36-year political career that he was having to deal with communal divisions in his vote-bank among the farmers.

Following the Meerut communal riots in 1987, just a year after he had taken the plunge into politics, he launched a month-long ‘Sadbhavna Yatra’ covering nearly 600 km from Meerut to Lucknow. It was a trial by fire for him in politics.

An alumnus of IIT-Kharagpur and the Illinois Institute of Technology, Singh had had stints in multinational companies, such as IBM in the US, before he was forced to return home after his father, former Prime Minister Chaudhary Charan Singh, suffered a brain stroke in November 1985.

Former prime minister Chaudhary Charan Singh, Ajit Singh’s father, and his wife Gayatri Devi | Photo: Praveen Jain/ThePrint
Former prime minister Chaudhary Charan Singh, Ajit Singh’s father, and the former’s wife Gayatri Devi | Photo: Praveen Jain/ThePrint

The next three-and-a-half decades saw the evolution of this computer scientist into a hardcore politician who mastered the art of power politics. He is one of the very few politicians — the other one that comes to mind is late Ram Vilas Paswan — who could get out from one alliance or government to enter into another with consummate ease.

He was a union minister in the governments led by V.P. Singh (National Front), P.V. Narasimha Rao (Congress), Atal Bihari Vajpayee (NDA) and Dr Manmohan Singh (UPA). He, in fact, joined the Congress to become a minister in the Rao government and successfully contested the 1996 Lok Sabha election on a Congress ticket before leaving the party his father was once part of and founding the RLD.

In 2003, he resigned from the Vajpayee government to withdraw support from Mayawati-led BSP-BJP government in Uttar Pradesh in which his party had a minister. In the next government, led by Mulayam Singh Yadav, Ajit Singh’s party got three ministers.

Chaudhary Ajit Singh at his father’s funeral in 1987 | Photo: Praveen Jain/ThePrint
Chaudhary Ajit Singh at his father’s funeral in 1987 | Photo: Praveen Jain/ThePrint

Weatherman who continually got the weather wrong

In a way, Singh had something in common with the celebrated ‘mausam vigyani’ or weatherman of Indian politics, Ram Vilas Paswan. Only that Singh, unlike Paswan, often failed to read the changing weather.

He went with the Samajwadi Party in the 2004 Lok Sabha election, only to change his partner in 2009 when he allied with the BJP. Although he ended up on the losing side, he shifted his allegiance to the UPA within two years in 2011, to become the civil aviation minister in the Manmohan Singh government.

It was quite a political somersault for Ajit Singh who was rooting for Mayawati’s prime ministership just three years earlier when she, along with the Left, was seeking to forge a non-Congress, non-BJP government.

Singh had many political pundits scratching their heads in disbelief in the days leading up to the July 2008 trust vote, brought about by the Left withdrawing support to the Manmohan Singh government over the Indo-US nuclear deal.

In one of those days, the Communist Party of India general secretary A.B. Bardhan visited Singh to seek his support against the nuclear deal. The latter, however, remained non-committal. With the trust vote expected to go down to the wire, the RLD with three MPs was bargaining hard. Although he met Mayawati a day before the trust vote, UPA strategists didn’t lose hope and kept banking on a last-minute change of mind.

The RLD chief kept everyone on tenterhooks before voting against the UPA government, a bad call given that the latter went on to win. Ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP was very eager to ally with Ajit Singh, the latter took another bad call and ended up on the losing side. He was on the losing side in the 2019 elections, again.

The last seven years of Ajit Singh’s political career could be a tale of political miscalculations and struggle, probably more than ever. But as an RLD leader close to him told this writer Thursday, Chaudhary sahib died a happy man because he judged his life not by the political power he wielded but by the love and affection he received from millions of people and they stood by his side till his last breath.

(Edited by Arun Prashanth)

Also read: Uniting Jats with Muslims & others — RLD plans ‘Bhaichara Zindabad’ campaign in western UP


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