New Delhi: Former Prime Minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh, better known as V.P. Singh, died this day 11 years ago. Singh, who served as Prime Minister from December 1989 to November 1990, led a government backed by ideological rivals BJP and the Left.
A veteran politician, Singh was far from defeated by his cancer diagnosis. In a chat with ThePrint Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta on NDTV’s Walk the Talk, he would rather enjoy the time he was left with than brood over the disease. Read the full chat here.
SG: Let me use a phrase (former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee) used about himself: Never tired, never retired. You fought sickness, you fought political wilderness, but you’ve somehow always been centrestage.
V.P. Singh: Somehow, I never get bored of life. I always find something that totally absorbs me, and because I am totally absorbed, much of my worries just vanish.
SG: But even in terms of health and your own sort of worries, it looks like they are much less now than they were two or three years back. You have brought about a remarkable turnaround in your own outlook.
VP: What I found most useful is acceptance. Acceptance, not a passive one. One fights [disease] with whatever resources one has, but acceptance that it’s not going to change. For instance, I have this kidney failure and also multiple myeloma, which is a bone marrow malignancy. I know they are not going to be cured.
SG: Is it cancer?
VP: Yes. It is cancer. I know my days are not many. But if I spend them with a long face, then whatever I’ve got is lost. Why lose what little I have? In the morning, when I get up, I find no pain in my body, I look at myself in the mirror and say, “I am alive, so I’ll enjoy this day today.” And that is how it is. But if I were grumbling, “Had I not been ill, I would have been going around, would have been doing this, I would have been doing that”, then one is lost.
SG: Your disease and your political decline into wilderness happened around the same time. Was one a consequence of the other?
VP: No, I don’t think so. Because right up to 1996, I was active. You know the prime ministership was offered to me in 1996. And somewhat I’ve been in politics anyway, whether it was bringing down the BJP government in 13 days or by one vote. That way, something or the other has always engaged me. But now, it is not in the formal political sense of being a party member or campaigning.
SG: But that was a remarkable change, from Rajiv Gandhi being sort of your political rival No. 1 to the BJP becoming your political enemy No. 1. With Rajiv Gandhi, at least, you fought for power. With the BJP, you are only fighting to bring them down, to keep them out of power. It’s a kind of negative engagement.
VP: Well, fighting disease is also a negative engagement, but it is necessary.
SG: Are you trying to say that the BJP is like a disease?
VP: Not in the sense personally. I know many of their leaders and have very good relations with them, and I have no personal animosity. But it is their hate agenda at the ground level, hate towards the minorities, particularly the Muslims. I don’t think that’s good for the country. If they can drop that agenda, they become a normal party.
SG: Can they drop their agenda? You know their leaders?
VP: It’s difficult. Because right from their RSS shakhas, their psyche is made up like that. And whatever the top leaders may say, at the ground level what happens, everybody knows. But still, one can wish.
SG: But you know these senior leaders. Mr Advani, Mr Vajpayee, Mr Murli Manohar Joshi…
VP: No, senior leaders are alright.
SG: Do they understand what you are saying?
VP: Even if they understand, they are in a set-up where they can’t do anything.
SG: But when did you come to this conclusion that Rajiv Gandhi and Bofors were a lesser enemy, or a lesser target, than the BJP and Hindutva?
VP: Well, Rajiv and I fought each other in the elections. But after his death, I have never raised the issue.
SG: It was a very bitter election. I came to cover your by-election in Allahabad in 1988, when you were riding a motorbike all day with just a flask of milk, and we were having a tough time. I was 17 years younger, even I was having a tough time following you. It was a very hot summer, it followed our worst drought of the century. You were so motivated and all the rhetoric was anti-Rajiv, corruption, personal. How did you and Rajiv relate to each other after that election? Did he forgive you?
VP: I never made a personal charge against him. I made many charges of lapses as a government head, but I didn’t make a personal charge. After that, I had called on him. On the Kashmir issue, I’d invited him for dinner, and on a few more issues we had a one-to-one talk.
SG: Was there bitterness?
VP: No. That way, he didn’t have bitterness, he was very sophisticated and polished.
SG: But did he never ask you why you did this? Did you really believe he had made money from Bofors?
VP: No, he didn’t do that.
SG: Did you believe he made money in Bofors?
VP: I never made that charge. What I had said was that the government is covering up and making wrong statements. And there is no reason why a government should be making and should go on making and revising its statements, unless there is a cover-up. I went only to that extent.
SG: But you were in the government then, you were in the government subsequently. Was it your sense that Rajiv Gandhi and his family made money in Bofors, or you think others made it and he was covering up? What was your worst belief?
VP: I think I never made the charge that he or his family had taken money. But someone has taken money, that is now proven. Even the Swiss accounts show the accounts where the money has gone. Now that compelled him to cover up or what, I don’t know. But, certainly, the statements made by the government need not have been made.
SG: Knowing Rajiv, having known him very well — you were also a friend of his —do you think he was the kind of person who would make money out of a defence deal?
VP: I was a great admirer of his, and I virtually saw no fault in him. I used to fight with my friends for him, that he was a better leader than Indira Gandhi. That was my state of mind. The differences arose not on Bofors, it was on the HDW submarine. I got a telegram on my desk from our ambassador in Germany that there were commissions in this by Indian agents. I reported it to Rajiv and then ordered an inquiry. That led to differences, and I resigned from the government.
SG: But now it has been more than a decade and a half. Do you ever have regrets? Because the Bofors charge will stick forever.
VP: I think we fought each other very honestly. He did what he believed at that time, and I did what I really believed. And it was an honest fight from both sides, in what each of us believed. I remember, (former RBI governor) Bimal Jalan came to me… He said that you two should not part, Rajiv and you… It will be a great loss to the country. I told him, what can one person matter, how alone can I matter, and disposed it of then. He said, there will be a big impact. Now, looking back, he was very right. It did have some impact.
SG: So do you have some regret that this politics went that way?
VP: In a way…we were very close. Indiraji built me up. For the family, I have very high regard, and I wish them well. It would have been better had things not developed this way. But I think neither of the two could have helped it.
SG: The idea of putting a dead Rajiv Gandhi’s name in the Bofors chargesheet…
VP: That should not have been done. The BJP should not have done that.
SG: It sounds cussed to me.
VP: Legally also, all charges abate. Then it is not our Indian culture to make charges against those who cannot reply, who is not there.
SG: So, you are willing to forgive and forget Bofors after Rajiv Gandhi passed away?
VP: After that, I never raised the issue, unless somebody pointedly put it to me. I never, on my own, raised it unless I was cornered.
SG: And when you met Sonia Gandhi for the first time after the last election, was the ghost of Bofors hovering in the room?
VP: No, she was very good to me, very gracious.
SG: How did that happen? Nobody imagined that you and Sonia would strike such a warm rapport.
VP: When I decided to support the Congress, I didn’t negotiate it. I didn’t even talk to any Congress leader. I thought it was in the interest of the country — that without the Congress, we cannot dislodge the BJP. So I decided to support it. And I think she believed that my support to the Congress was genuine, based on my own principles and conviction.
SG: How would you compare her as a leader and politician with Indiraji and Rajiv? You worked with both of them. They were your mentors in many ways.
VP: Yes. Of course, Indiraji had much more experience than him. She was with Jawaharlalji. The grooming that she had had the opportunity of, Rajiv did not have. Then, she was in the freedom struggle. Rajiv was modern, very dynamic, and he was a very polite person.
SG: It was a tragedy he died very young.
VP: His presence in the Indian polity would have been a positive thing for the country.
SG: And how do you compare Sonia with him?
VP: Sonia has now shown much political talent, especially against the odds she has fought, of language, of being foreign-born. Amidst all these handicaps, she has been able to lead her party, and taken very wise decisions.
SG: Can you think of one remarkable thing that makes her different from Rajiv and Indiraji?
VP: Well, principles of leadership are usually the same. So, it is the capacity to motivate and inspire… So long as she can hold the Congress party and lead it and motivate it, that’s one thing that each leader has.
SG: What is that one thing that she has?
VP: I think she has been able to hold the party, which was disintegrating. She has been able to form a government. She was wise enough to not accept the prime ministership. Many of her decisions and interventions, her sensitivities are correct.
SG: Did she surprise you by saying no to prime ministership?
VP: Well, I got an inkling a little before, perhaps others would have got it.
SG: So, she took you into confidence?
VP: She would have taken all the important people [into confidence] at the same time. [The late DMK chief] Karunanidhi would have also been briefed…
SG: But for Mr V.P. Singh to be among those important people is a big change for Indian politics.
VP: I don’t know. But the very fact that she took us into confidence about it, at least personally for me, is an expression of trust.
SG: Many of us noticed that the warmth and trust was not only between you and her but between you and the family.
VP: Well, I always respect and regard them as a family, and I owe so much to Indiraji.
SG: That is so remarkable because that family also doesn’t forgive easily. They haven’t forgiven most others who were involved in Bofors on the other side but you are an exception.
VP: I don’t know, but the warmth and trust they have shown is certainly a thing of value for me.
SG: You ran a remarkable government supported by the Left and the BJP. Many people don’t remember it now.
VP: Well, I knew it the day I took oath that this experiment is like achieving the sun’s temperature in the lab, which cannot be for a long time. The day I was taking oath, I had given my government two years. Perhaps I ran the tape fast-forward and it became one year. So that was no surprise that the government went, that had to go. There were too many contradictions. This didn’t happen even in 1977, the whole opposition spectrum did not come together.
SG: But what was it like to have the Left on one side and the BJP on the other?
VP: I didn’t have any problems. Administratively, I had no problem either with the BJP or the Left.
SG: That is not something that the Left wants to be reminded of now. The secret meetings that Jyoti Basu and Advaniji used to have in Viren Shah’s house, for example.
VP: They used to have a meeting between the Left and the BJP in my house every Tuesday. Dinner meetings, I had no pressure. I was one prime minister of a coalition where the coalition partners did not put any pressure.
SG: But now you see the Left almost treating the BJP as untouchables. This never happened in our politics.
VP: Really after Gujarat…
SG: And when the Congress was the enemy, the Left had no compunctions making common cause with the BJP in Punjab, at the Centre.
VP: After Gujarat, even I have hardened my views on the BJP as a party. Though, personally, I know Atalji, Advaniji, Shekhawatji. I know many personally. We also communicate at times, when necessary.
SG: In fact, we think that is a very positive feature of our politics. For example, do you believe that Vajpayeeji advised Sonia not to accept prime ministership? Tell me with a straight face.
VP: I don’t think so. I think it came on her own and the family.
SG: And now, to one of your favourite lines. When Lalu got elected in Bihar the second time, you said, “Bihar is my laboratory for social change.” How is the change going?
VP: I think the idea was to get all deprived sections in our society [together]. When we see historically, we can understand this need of social justice in our context, not in abstract. The Supreme Court said if victimisation is on the basis of birth, relief also will have to come by birth. Only then the victims will be identified.
SG: But has it gone too long now? Has the experiment gone wrong now?
VP: It has derailed in the sense that it was a concept of getting all the deprived sections together, cutting across caste lines, including the poorer of the upper castes, because we demanded 10 per cent for the upper castes also. Constitutionally, we could not do it, but we made a demand. It was part of our psyche. It has derailed now into my caste, plus minority, and any caste that may come. It has degenerated into caste dynamics, which is not good for the country. Because development should be the issue. I have gone around telling farmers during elections that five years you are farmers and make farmers’ demands, and, on voting day, you become your caste. Who’ll bother about your farmer issues?
SG: Do you have any regrets that this has now become so casteist? Do you see this rolling back now?
VP: No, I don’t have regrets in this sense that it was a constitutional obligation. Mandal [Commission] has been accepted by the Supreme Court. It has not only been accepted by all the parties, they are taking it further… But spreading it to the voting area, I don’t think it is good. Because everything has its limits.
SG: Do you see a correction coming in now?
VP: It will, because the economic condition of the deprived section will become so bad, development will be the issue.
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.