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VP Singh — the poet-PM who took BJP support but later called the party a disease

Vishwanath Pratap Singh was among the first politicians to create alliance with ideological enemies. He headed a govt supported by both BJP and Left.

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In an unexpected turn of events, Devendra Fadnavis was sworn in as chief minister of Maharashtra early Saturday morning for the second time, with the NCP’s Ajit Pawar as his deputy. After the Shiv Sena walked away from its alliance with the BJP over disagreements on power sharing, many have claimed that the alliance formed since then (Congress-NCP-Shiv Sena) is unholy and unnatural. 

But politics is all about allying with that delightful Shakespearean coinage, strange bedfellows, and the BJP itself is no stranger to this. The party would do well to revisit the political situation of 30 years ago, when one man led what may be called an ‘unholy alliance’. That is, the National Front, a coalition of the TDP, DMK and AGP with support from both the BJP and Left — all to keep his own former party, the Congress, out of power. This leader was none other than the former prime minister of India, Vishwanath Pratap Singh.

It was only the second time India was governed by a coalition, and Singh had remained PM for less than a year, from 2 December 1989 to 10 November 1990. His short tenure as prime minister was filled with controversies and tough times, from implementing the recommendations of the Mandal Commission (that a fixed quota of all jobs in the public sector be reserved for members of OBCs) to the rise of militancy in Kashmir and the Ram Janmabhoomi issue.

Singh died on 27 November, 2008.

Also read: KR Narayanan — the President who didn’t hesitate to call a spade a spade

From Congress’ Mr Clean to leader of anti-Congress alliance

Sunil Shastri, son of Lal Bahadur Shastri and minister in the UP cabinet when Singh was chief minister of the state, tells ThePrint, “V.P. Singh was too good a person, that is why he was taken for granted. He was exploited by the National Front government.”

It was, however, Shastri who had gone on to contest the Allahabad seat against Singh in the 1988 UP elections, when Singh broke away from the Congress and formed the Jan Morcha. 

Shastri was the power minister in the UP cabinet when Singh was the state’s chief minister in 1980, as a Congress leader. Singh served as chief minister of the state for two years, and was made finance minister in Rajiv Gandhi’s cabinet in 1984. During his tenure as FM, he got income tax raids conducted against high-profile people such as Dhirubhai Ambani and Amitabh Bachchan.

He also investigated the illegal stacking of foreign exchange in overseas banks by Indians.

It has been reported that due to protest against these measures Singh was removed as finance minister and made defence minister. However, Singh did not sit quiet there either. Following the Bofors scandal, Singh resigned as the defence minister in 1987, and also from the Congress, and formed the Janata Morcha — though he always denied Bofors was the reason.

Shastri tells ThePrint that Rajiv Gandhi called him to his residence at 2:30 am one day and told him that he was going to contest the Allahabad seat against Singh in the 1988 UP elections. “I was hesitant contesting the seat against him as he was my chief minister and I served in his government, but I followed party orders.”

Shastri further explains how his nomination was done in great secrecy and he was not allowed to speak to the press. He adds, “V.P. Singh was hesitant running against me because he wanted to run against Amitabh Bachchan but Devi Lal pressurised him to contest.” Devi Lal went on to be the deputy prime minister in Singh’s National Front government. 

On 11 October 1988, Singh founded the Janata Dal by merging Jan Morcha, Janata Party, Lok Dal and Congress (S), bringing together all the parties opposed to the Rajiv Gandhi government. He was elected the president of the Janata Dal.

An opposition coalition of the Janata Dal with regional parties including the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Telugu Desam Party, and Asom Gana Parishad, was then formed and called the National Front. Shastri explains, “The 1989 general elections were monitored not just in India but the world over. This is because Singh was seen as the big challenge to Rajiv Gandhi.” 

Despite contesting elections against him, Shastri recalls Singh was like an elder brother to him and his mother would call Singh her fifth son. “He was a very honest politician and encouraged the youngsters. He could be firm when he wanted to be but he was still too soft as a politician.”

Says political analyst Rasheed Kidwai, “The National Front government was a curious mix of liberals, leftists and people from the right wing. Singh did not unite the Jana Sangh and Left only on anti-Rajiv Gandhism, but also in the guise of his crusade against corruption and establishing national security. He used the same ploy for both Jyoti Basu and L.K. Advani.” 

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Mandal and how it changed India

Singh’s government lasted 11 months. There are different reasons to why this was the case. 

Shastri believes it was mainly because the BJP withdrew power and the controversy over Mandal issue, which created massive backlash, after which everything fell apart. “V.P. Singh was too soft on the Mandal issue, he should have been more firm and clearer on the entire issue.” Kidwai is less forgiving. He believes it was mainly because Singh was saying different things to different people to appease them.

This, along with the arrest of Advani, is what led to the downfall of the National Front government, according to Kidwai. “V.P. Singh’s government was a bundle of contradictions, the intent was not there and deceit was his secret weapon.”

The Mandal Commission was set up in 1979 when Morarji Desai was the prime minister of India, with the main aim of identifying the socially and economically backward sections of India. It was based on the 1931 Census and one its main recommendations was 27 per cent reservation in government jobs and educational institutions for Other Backward Classes (OBCs). Regarded as politically contentious, the recommendations were not implemented by Morarji Desai, Indira Gandhi or Rajiv Gandhi who, in fact, called the report “a can of worms”, one that he said he wasn’t going to open. 

In his Independence Day speech in 1990 from ramparts of the Red Fort, Singh announced its implementation. This was met with strong protest from students, bureaucrats and teachers across cities, while rumours were rife of Singh’s resignation. Singh, at the time, said, “I wish to make it clear that should a situation arise in which I have to choose between a cause that I believe in so intensely, and my chair I will not hesitate for an instant to choose the former.”

The protests took an ugly turn when, on 19 September 1990, Delhi University student Rajeev Goswami set himself on fire in protest against the reservations. This resulted in students immolating themselves in protest in Delhi, Hisar, Sirsa, Ambala, Lucknow, Gwalior, Kota, Ghaziabad too. Many political parties attempted to use the protest for political mileage — when then BJP president L.K. Advani and MP Madan Lal Khurana visited Safdarjung Hospital to see Goswami’s parents, students hooted them away. Advani could not denounce the Mandal Commission report as the BJP manifesto was committed to its implementation. 

Mandal and its aftermath fragmented the Hindu vote bank, and the BJP saw an opportunity here to consolidate it. The party organised a rath yatra led by Advani to push its Ram Mandir agenda, resulting in the arrest of Advani, ordered by V.P. Singh, for disturbing peace and creating communal tension.

Following this, BJP withdrew support from Singh’s government and it fell when he faced a vote of no-confidence in the House, losing the majority 142-346. Support was mainly withdrawn over the issue of the demolition of Babri Masjid, which Singh disallowed. As he resigned, Singh asked Parliament: “What kind of country do you want?” 

V.P. Singh, the poet

Born in Allahabad on 25 June 1931, Singh, the son of a landlord, was adopted by the Raja of Manda, and was soon named its ruler — at the age of 10. He got interested in student politics while studying arts and law at Allahabad University, which was followed by a science degree from Fergusson in Pune. A man of many interests, Singh was a keen poet, who even published an anthology of his poems — Ek Tukda Dharti, Ek Tukda Asman (A Piece of Earth, A Piece of Sky). He also loved flowers and animals. 

The poeticism could be seen even when he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, which ultimately took his life.

In an interview three years before his death in 2005, Singh had said, “Though I was sad, I thought the disease may take me but it will not take my dignity.” In the interview, he went on to compare the BJP to his disease and said, “I have political friendships with people in the party, but their hate agenda at the ground level is a disease — their hate for minorities particularly the Muslims.”  

He got rather poetic and said, “Fighting disease is also a negative engagement but necessary.” 

A few hours after his death, his gardner Nimbu Lal while crying uncontrollably said, “Who will talk to me now about the right way to treat roses and jasmine, and parrots and sparrows, and malis (gardeners) and kisans (farmers)?”

Also read: Jailed for anti-Nehru poem & celebrated for Bollywood songs, Majrooh Sultanpuri had it all


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