V P Singh

Dipankar Bhattacharya

Former Prime Minister Viswanath Pratap Singh passed away rather unnoticed on November 27, at a time when the attention of the entire country was focussed on the trajectory of terror in Mumbai. His end came after nearly a decade-old battle with blood cancer.
Few among independent India’s bourgeois political leaders have had as chequered a career as VP Singh. Hailing from an aristocratic feudal background in Uttar Pradesh, he rose in the Congress as a leader close to the Nehru-Gandhi family. His first major assignment was as Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh in the early 1980s when he came to be known as a tough chief minister who put down banditry in the state which actually involved the killing of many backward caste youths.
After the sweeping victory of the Congress following Indira Gandhi’s assassination, VP Singh was picked as Finance Minister in Rajiv Gandhi’s cabinet. It was he who initiated the process of economic liberalisation that would grow in the 1990s into the policy package of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation. A few years later, he was made Defence Minister and he began his celebrated crusade against defence kickback scams concerning the purchase of Bofors guns from Sweden and HDW submarines. This led to his resignation from the cabinet and the beginning of his emergence as a national political leader outside the shadow of the Nehru-Gandhi family and beyond the traditional trajectory of the Congress.
The crusade against corruption acquired a popular socio-economic dimension when Singh also promised to make the right to work a fundamental right. Riding a popular wave, Singh emerged as the tallest leader in the 1989 election and became the Prime Minister of a minority government. Even as he described the Left as his natural ally, Singh’s Left-backed government relied for its survival on the support from an upbeat BJP which had started smelling power on the strength of the aggressive communal mobilisation around the so-called Ram Janambhoomi movement. As Prime Minister, Singh however did nothing to implement his number one election promise of recognising the right to work as a fundamental right.
Survival became the topmost priority of the new government, and managing contradictions within the faction-ridden Janata Dal and buying peace with the aggressive BJP – Advani had famously described his party’s role in the government as both accelerator and brake. In one of his disastrous BJP-inspired moves, Singh sent Jagmohan as Governor to a turbulent Jammu and Kashmir, and since then the valley has been bleeding continuously. VP Singh eventually sought to wriggle out of the crisis by announcing reservation for backward castes, thereby partially implementing the Mandal Commission report. While it provided a new impetus to Lohiaite politics in North India – parties like Rashtriya Janata Dal, Janata Dal (United), Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party owe much of their present-day strength to the socio-political change engineered by this one single move; it also hastened the fall of VP Singh’s government.
To his credit, Singh did not try to prolong his government by succumbing to the BJP’s pressure and exited gracefully after being a little more than a year in power. He continued to play an active role in opposition politics all through the 1990s till he was diagnosed with cancer and required weekly dialysis. He played a key role in keeping the United Front governments going in 1996-98 and in helping the Congress cobble the UPA and form the government in 2004. During the last few years he had once again moved closer to the Congress, advising his close associates to join the Congress. But apart from campaigning against the BJP and its brand of communal fascist politics, Singh could also see also the resentment of poor building up due to the policies of globalisation (which had incidentally been ushered in during his own era of active politics.) He warned against the consequences of such anti-poor globalisation and advocated a human face, appearing often at protests against displacement in the name of SEZs, slum eviction and farmers’ suicides.

History would remember VP Singh as a far-sighted and astute leader of the ruling classes who played a key role in shaping and managing the balance of Indian politics in the era of corporatisation and globalisation. Without the paradigm shift triggered by the Mandal Commission move and the consequent broadening of the social horizon and complexion of bourgeois politics, the Indian ruling classes would surely have found the new economic policies far more unsustainable. He was absolutely firm and clear-headed in his vision of bourgeois politics, but beyond corporate boardrooms and even parliamentary premises he knew how to take his politics to angry farmers and various schools and trends of popular struggles.