V.P. Singh signalled paradigm
shift in Indian politics
By Neerja Chowdhury
Singh, the most controversial prime minister India has had,
is dead. Though he ruled the country only for a short spell,
from December 1989 to November 1990, the 77-year-old leader
had brought about a paradigm shift in Indian politics.
known as the 'Mandal messiah', he pulled out the long forgotton
B.P. Mandal Commission's report from a dusty government almirah
and went on to implement its recommendations, giving 27 percent
job reservation for Other Backward Classes (OBCs). The decision
led to Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP's) L.K. Advani's famous
Rath Yatra from Somnath to Ayodhya, polarized the polity along
caste and religious, and led to large scale violence in north
India. It also brought down his 11-month government.
middle class, whose support first catapulted VP to power as
he campaigned against corruption in the Bofors gun deal, loved
to hate him, and did not forgive him till the end. As he told
this correspondent once, "Taang toot gayi par goal kar
diya" (I fractured my foot but scored the goal).
decision electrified the OBCs in north India. He himself got
marginalized but the politics he unleashed threw up a crop
of OBC leaders like Lalu Prasad, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Nitish
Kumar. And it gave an impetus to the Dalit consolidation,
and to the rise of Mayawati and Ram Vilas Paswan.
also compelled the otherwise upper-caste BJP, which initially
opposed the Mandal report, to go on for "social engineering"
and make Kalyan Singh, a Lodh, the chief minister in Uttar
Pradesh. It was BJP which subsequently gave the Jats OBC status
the years every party, including the Congress, accepted the
reality of reservations for the OBCs. Two years ago, following
in VP's footsteps, Human Resource development Minister Arjun
Singh, also a Thakur like VP, compelled his party to go in
for 27 percent reservation for OBCs in institutions of higher
used to say repeatedly that Mandal had "changed the social
composition of the decisionmaker", but towards the end
of his life, VP was unhappy that the fight for "social
justice" had degenerated into "caste politics".
idea was to have the participation of the deprived sections,
in decisionmaking in the power structure," he had told
this correspondent. "Caste politics will not take us
very far. We have to make these corrections."
was most influenced by late prime minister Indira Gandhi,
who was his mentor and from whom he learnt what realpolitik
was all about. When she came back to power in 1980, she made
him chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, but he resigned over
his failure to control the dacoit gangs.
Rajiv Gandhi made him finance minister in 1984 when he took
over as prime minister after his mother's assassination, but
fell out with him. VP went on to don the mantle of Mr. Clean
that Rajiv had worn, created an alternative instrument to
take on the Congress, defeated the party at the hustings,
and replaced Rajiv as prime minister - all within the span
of two and a half years.
believe that the history of India might have been different
had VP and Rajiv Gandhi not fallen out.
emergence of VP Singh marked the end of the rule by the Nehru-Gandhi
family. Though the Congress came back to power in 1991 and
then again in 2004, it was P.V. Narasimha Rao and Manmohan
Singh who became prime ministers. While Sonia Gandhi entered
active politics in 1998, and Rahul Gandhi is now being groomed,
no member of the family has become the country's premier since
1989, though India has seen seven prime ministers since then.
rise also heralded the decline of the Congress, and the party
has not been to recover. Considered the father of coalition
politics at the Centre, he was able to unite the entire anti-Congress
spectrum of parties under one umbrella to take on - and defeat
- the Congress in 1989.
Congress was also defeated in 1977 when the Janata Party came
to power, but VP forged the National Front, with the Janata
Dal as the centerpiece of the coalition, supported from outside
by both the BJP and the Left. It was under him that India
entered coalition politics in the true sense at the national
Singh had a lonely childhood. Born in the feudal Dahiya family,
he was adopted by the Raja of Manda, a princely estate near
Allahabad. Graduating from Ferguson College in Pune, at one
stage he harboured dreams of joining the Bhabha Atomic Research
Centre. But he was deeply influenced by Vinoba Bhave's Bhoodan
movement to the extent of donating 100 acres of fertile land
to it. And then politics claimed him.
Singh battled myeloma, a cancer of the bone marrow for many
years, and was on dialysis after his kidneys were damaged.
recent years he had taken to painting, and dabbled in poetry,
both in Hindi and English.
on the sea
one will take me," he had written.
has now finally taken him.