New Delhi: When Swatantra Dev Singh, then known as ‘Congress Singh’, was rechristened during his college days, he was certain that his allegiance to the Sangh Parivar would last for the entirety of his life. It wouldn’t have otherwise made sense to change a name that he carried for the first two decades of his life — given to him by his Congress-admiring father.
Singh, the Uttar Pradesh BJP president, stirred up a controversy last week when a video of him addressing party workers in Ballia went viral on the internet. In the video, Singh can be heard saying that PM Narendra Modi has decided when India will go to war with China and Pakistan.
“Yeh Modiji ne tay ki hai…sab tithi tay hai, mirtron. Kab kya hona hai, sab tay hai… 370 dhara kab samapta hoga, Ram Mandir ka nirman kab hoga, Pakistan se yuddh kab hoga, China se yuddh kab hoga (Modi has decided everything.. When Article 370 was to be abrogated, when the Ram temple would be built, when there will be a war with Pakistan, when there will be a war with China),” Singh said.
Leaders in UP BJP say this is the first time he has had a foot-in-mouth moment of this sort, and isn’t generally known to attract such controversies.
“We did not expect him to make such a remark, but even though it became a controversial matter, the point was that PM Modi should be trusted with China, and that needed to be communicated to our voters,” a UP BJP leader, who did not wish to be named, said.
Singh, meanwhile, maintains his statement was taken out of context. “I don’t know how that happened, it’s okay now. Let’s close that chapter,” he told ThePrint.
Singh, who is currently tailing UP CM Yogi Adityanath for rallies ahead of bypolls in the state next month, says the ‘disciplined lifestyle’ of the RSS is what attracted him to the organisation. “It gives you a sense of discipline, and the sanskar which are important to lead life,” he said. “It keeps you rooted. I understood that I belong here.”
From holding anti-Sangh views in his early youth, to now being the campaign master for the BJP, Singh’s colleagues describe his journey as ‘transformative’.
Anti-Sangh to BJP loyalist
Singh, born in 1964 in UP’s Mirzapur district, spent his teenage years in Bundelkhand’s Orai city where he lived with his older brother who was serving in the police. It was while pursuing his B.Sc in an Orai college in the late 1980s that he first developed proximity to the Sangh ideology through members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
Ashok Tiwari, the national general secretary of the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), describes Singh as initially being against the RSS ideology.
“You know the popular perception of RSS being hindutvawadi and orthodox — he also held that belief. But when he saw and understood RSS more closely, he immediately gravitated towards the organisation and became a part of it,” Tiwari, who first met Singh in his college days, told ThePrint.
Singh may have had a change of heart, but there was still one very obvious hurdle to his political growth — his name.
“I remember we were all sitting in the RSS office when we asked him why he is called Congress. He told us his father was a Congressi, and was worried about the future of the party so gave his son this name to ensure the party’s legacy continues,” Tiwari said. “But we collectively decided that his name should be changed, and that’s how Swatantra came to be.”
This added up perfectly because just around that time Singh had finished working with the UP-based newspaper Swatantra Bharat, so his name almost served as a hat-tip to the paper.
“I remember this one time I covered Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to certain UP districts and my byline went as Congress Singh,” Singh recalled.
In 1989, Singh became the secretary of the RSS’s students’ wing — the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP).
After that, there was no looking back for him. He was appointed the general secretary in charge of BJP UP youth wing in 1996, and then the state president of the body in 2001. In 2004, he was made the general secretary of UP BJP, elected to the legislative council as an MLC, and later the vice-president of the party’s state unit as well.
Campaign master who knows every party worker’s name by heart
Despite rising up the organisational ladder, Singh hasn’t been able to make much of a mark in UP’s electoral politics. In 2012, he contested assembly polls from Kalpi seat in Bundelkhand — the district he had worked in almost all his life. He finished a dismal fourth.
Singh’s colleagues, however, say he is the ‘go-to man’ for campaigns and rallies in UP, and even outside of the state. Singh earned his spurs and came to be known as the ‘campaign master’ after he successfully managed PM Narendra Modi’s rallies for the 2017 UP Assembly polls.
Then, in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Singh was tasked with managing the BJP’s campaign in Madhya Pradesh, where the party won 28 of 29 seats despite being defeated by the Congress just months ago in the state elections.
“He would be the sole leader in UP who personally knows party workers of each and every district and block, by their names,” Chandra Mohan, UP BJP secretary told ThePrint. “He is inherently very good at mobilising people, boosting the energy of the party cadre — this is his biggest strength.”
Mohan defended Singh’s “PM had decided war-date” comment saying it needs to be viewed in a certain context. “All he meant was that the PM knows what he is doing and we must have faith in him and his governance,” Mohan said.
Made president to help get ‘OBC votes’
In 2017, Singh was seen as one of the leading candidates for the CM-post, but had to settle for a cabinet post with the transport, protocol and energy department portfolios under him.
In 2019, however, after the then BJP UP president Mahendra Nath Pandey was moved to the Union Cabinet as Minister of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship, Singh was brought in to fill his shoes.
Singh belongs to the Kurmi caste — one of the largest OBC communities in UP. The BJP’s move to make Singh the president was seen as an attempt to increase the party’s outreach among the electorally significant OBCs. “My focus remains trying to strengthen the organisation in the state from ground-up,” Singh said.
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