Former prime minister V.P. Singh, the Mandal messiah, dies (Lead)

November 27th, 2008 - 7:17 pm ICT by IANS  

Bharatiya Janata PartyNew Delhi, Nov 27 (IANS) Former prime minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh, who gained renown not so much for his governance as for affirmative action that radically altered the political map of India, died Thursday afternoon. The 77-year-old Singh breathed his last in Apollo Hospital after battling a kidney ailment and blood cancer for more than a decade.

An anti-corruption crusader, he was seen by many as a messiah of social justice who opened up opportunities for the lower and lower middle class strata of society, and was reviled by others for sharpening caste cleavages in Indian society with his Mandal politics.

“Singh was a thinking leader of independent India. He was not only a politician but a statesman who wanted to bring about social change in Indian society,” Shahid Siddiqui, senior BSP leader and Rajya Sabha MP, told IANS.

“I would call him a social reformer. His demise is a loss for India and all those who stand for a secular and equitable India,” siddiqui said.

“He has an important place in the history of Indian politics. The work done by him for the poor and the backwards is a major contribution to Indian society,” Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, senior BJP leader, told IANS.

“He was a harbinger of social engineering,” Naqvi said.

V.P. Singh served as finance minister and defence minister in the Rajiv Gandhi government before he turned against him and resigned over the issue of alleged payoff in the purchase of Bofors guns. He campaigned on the issue of corruption and probity in public life.

In 1989, snatching victory from the jaws of the Congress which had come to power in the 1984 elections with two-thirds majority, Singh formed the National Front government and ruled the country from December 2, 1989 to November 10, 1990. In those days, Singh was being called “Mr. Cleaner” to Gandhi’s much-touted “Mr. Clean” image.

In August 1990, Singh decided to implement the recommendations of the Mandal Commission that reserved 27 per cent of the jobs in central government for the so-called other backward classes (OBC) who comprised 52 percent of the Indian population.

It was a move that elicited a backlash from the urban, high-caste youth who saw job quota as a challenge to their educational and career prospects and which radically re-altered political equations in the country.

Singh’s controversial decision to get Bharatiya Janata Party leader L.K. Advani arrested in 1990 over charges of fomenting communal tension at the height of the movement over a Hindu temple in Ayodhya led to the withdrawal of the BJP’s support to the V.P. Singh-led Janata Dal government.

His prime ministerial tenure, lasting less a year, is mostly remembered for his policy of extending reservations to OBCs, tussle with powerful corporate interests and his decision to arrest Advani, which turned out to be his nemesis.

Born on June 25, 1931, in Allahabad, Singh is one of few Indian politicians whose reputation for integrity has survived the pressures of partisan politics. Even his critics concede Singh his reputation for clean personal conduct and a streak of idealism, which many found irksome.

In 1982, Singh resigned as chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state, when he failed to live up to his self-imposed deadline to crush gangs of bandits in the state.

Appointed by Indira Gandhi after her return to power in 1980, Singh’s administration earned respect for its honesty and his spirited attempts to curb dacoity and thuggery in the state.

In the last decade or so, Singh, a scion of the family that ruled the principality of Manda, near Allahabad, reinvented himself as a painter and a poet and continued to be a bridge builder among political parties opposed to the Congress party.

He also cast himself in the mould of an elder statesman in the succeeding governments of H. D. Deve Gowda and I. K. Gujral. In 1992, Singh was the first to propose the name of the future President K. R. Narayanan as a candidate for vice-president.

Two years ago, Singh’s 75th birthday celebrations turned into a major meeting point for leaders across the political divide, ranging from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Ram Vilas Paswan to the Communist parties’ A. B. Bardhan and Sitaram Yechuri.

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