V.P. Singh signalled paradigm shift in Indian politics (Tribute)

November 27th, 2008 - 10:02 pm ICT by IANS  

Bharatiya Janata PartyV.P. 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.Popularly 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.

The 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).

VP’s 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.

It 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 in Rajasthan.

Over 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 learning.

He 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”.

“The 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.”

VP 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.

Late 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.

Many believe that the history of India might have been different had VP and Rajiv Gandhi not fallen out.

The 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.

VP’s 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.

The 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 level.

VP 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.

VP Singh battled myeloma, a cancer of the bone marrow for many years, and was on dialysis after his kidneys were damaged.

In recent years he had taken to painting, and dabbled in poetry, both in Hindi and English.

“Lantern littered boats
Littered on the sea
Which one will take me,” he had written.

One has now finally taken him.

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