The Fall of VP Singh and After

[From Liberation, January 1991.]

The euphoria is over. By its very nature a euphoria is always short-lived, and, if VP Singh could survive for nearly eleven months it is no mean achievement for a politician who has had no roots in Indian politics, more so in "opposition" politics. Ironically, the man who had excelled in the art of resignation, eventually earned the distinction of being the first prime minister who was voted out on the floor of Parliament.

VP Singh is gone. Shall he make a comeback soon or be reduced to an ideologue of peripheral politics? It is too early to predict anything on this score; let us confine ourselves to the age-old wisdom of "wait and see".

VP Singh repeatedly claims to have sacrificed his government for the sake of the high principle of secularism. His line of argument is that he could have saved his government by conceding the BJP’s demand. He is projecting himself as a martyr for the great cause of secularism and, describing the vote of confidence as a battle between communalism and secularism, he even appealed to the MPs to vote according to their conscience.

The pattern of voting, however, revealed that the battle-line or rather lines were drawn at different planes, and the party whip was defied by nearly half of his own party MPs. If VP Singh is to be believed, the overwhelming majority of the MPs sided with communalism. Then how can one explain the split in the Janata Dal, especially when Mulayam Singh and Chimanbhai Patel, who are facing the BJP’s wrath as well, have opted for the Chandrashekhar camp? Chandrashekhar, the new prime minister, too is talking in a similar tone on the secularism-communalism issue. Actually, had VP Singh conceded the BJP’s demand, his government would have fallen with still more disgrace. Because, in that case the Left would have been compelled to withdraw its support and the Chandrashekhar-Devi Lal camp would still have rebelled, and that too with a greater moral authority. There was no course open to him to save his government at that juncture. In fact, he tried his best to come to a deal with the BJP till the last moment, the promulgation of the controversial ordinance being a proof of this. VP Singh is telling only the politician’s truth, the truth that suits him best. However the real reasons behind his fall are different — very different — and are rooted deep in the social divisions, in the traditional rivalries between different political parties and between various factions within his own party. The balance of social forces, and as their reflection, that of political forces within the Parliament, weighed against him and brought about his downfall.

The whole phenomenon cannot be explained simply as the bourgeois politicians’ lust for power, by invoking questions of norms and morality, and by overplaying the role of money power. All this amounts to a layman’s understanding of politics and a liberal-moralist approach which fails to understand that political parties are not any artificial creations of some professional politicians, but are the inevitable and natural products of modern-day societies, through which (political parties) various classes and strata of the society articulate their interests and compete with each other for share in power. Individual politician’s lust, scramble for loaves and fishes, money power etc., can operate only within the parameters of realignment of social forces. Let us begin with an analysis of the VP phenomenon in Indian politics.

VP Singh should be given the credit for making a serious attempt to build a bourgeois alternative to the Congress at an all-India level. Being pushed to the opposition politics, he mercilessly renounced his Congress past, and projected himself as the inheritor of the anti-Congressism of Lohia and Jayprakash and thereby as the natural leader of the opposition. Starting as a recruit of Sanjay Gandhi during the Emergency, his rise to UP chief ministership where his ruthless encounter campaign liquidated hundreds of youth belonging primarily to backward castes (incidentally, Mulayam Singh’s rivalry with VP Singh dates back to that period), then to an ardent advocate of economic liberalisation as Rajiv’s finance minister, and finally, his overnight transformation into the central opposition figure was in itself a wonder of Indian politics. He termed the Left as his natural ally and developed a good rapport with various non-party political formations and grassroots movements which had sprung up as antitheses to the Congress authoritarianism. He brought them all to the mainstream of political process. Most importantly, he successfully developed a National Front with important parties of regional opposition (to the Congress). He envisaged a political combination that would replace Congress not only in numerical terms in Parliament, but would also signal a new kind or political formation more suited to the present-day Indian conditions. His position within the Janata Dal was all along vulnerable as he was the commander of an alien army. The Janata Dal was an eclectic combination of several traditionally well-entrenched factions whose first loyalties were to their own chieftains rather than to the supreme commander. However, he hoped to keep the factional divisions in his own party within check by pitting one faction against another and, more importantly, by using his clout with the National Front allies against any challenge from within his own party. The BJP had no place in his original scheme of things and he carefully maintained a distance from it during the election campaign.

His AJGR combination worked well from Gujarat to Bihar. A good majority from the kulak lobby of backward castes as well as the old and new rural gentry of his own caste of Rajputs backed the Janata Dal. The Muslims, getting alienated from the Congress after the Bhagalpur riots and the controversial Shilanyas decision, voted for the Janata Dal. In Orissa, where the Janata Dal variety has all along been the natural opposition to the Congress, it gained the most from the anti-Congress wave. The Left recovered its positions in Bengal which it had lost to the Congress in 1984, and with some losses here and gains there, managed a fair representation in the parliament.

However, VP suffered his biggest setback in South India. The wave in South India was in direct opposition to the one in the North and was more sweeping too.

The electoral pattern in South India, which no one expected and which continues to puzzle political analysts, coupled with a satisfactory performance in Maharashtra, made Congress the single largest party Parliament.

The other unexpected development was the meteoric rise of the BJP. The BJP has always been a strong force in North and West India on its own and in states like Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh, it has traditionally been the main opposition to Congress. Every anti-Congress wave has meant its rise in those states. However, in 1989 elections, backed by its expanded network and by fully exploiting the Ram card, it surpassed the wildest expectations of its own leadership. Results have shown that it has expanded into several non-traditional areas as well and spread its wings among the peasantry and among backwards, dalits and Adivasis as well. The Left, the only consistent anti-BJP force, could do practically nothing to check the advance of the BJP in the Hindi belt and its slogan of ‘isolate BJP’ fell flat on its face. The BJP’s performance was more or less its own independent showing and the Ram card had yielded rich dividends.

Thus two adverse factors, first, the emergence of Congress(I) as the single largest party and thus its retaining the trump-card to exploit any situation to its favour, and second, the spectacular rise of the BJP, which fuelled its desire to play the trump-card, handicapped VP Singh from the very beginning. Moreover, deprived of the crucial support from his regional allies of the National Front within Parliament, his capacity to play down the factional squabbles within the Janata Dal was reduced to a minimum.

Here one must note the crucial difference between the objective placements and subjective ambitions of the BJP and the Left. Whereas the traditional strongholds of the Left such as Bengal and Kerala are areas where Janata Dal is virtually non-existent, the Left has no strong presence in the Janata Dal strongholds. The Left has virtually resigned itself to playing second fiddle to the Janata Dal in national politics and, whatever expansion it dreams of in the Hindi belt as well as in states like Andhra, Orissa, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu etc., it does so only through following behind the tail of the Janata Dal and its National Front allies. The Left, therefore, can live in long-term harmony with the Janata Dal.

The situation is entirely different for the BJP. Its areas of operation overlap with those of the Janata Dal and its existence and expansion can only be at the cost of the Janata Dal. The rivalry between the two is an in-built objective phenomenon. Moreover, the BJP, driven by the aggressive Hindu Rashtra philosophy and backed by a well spread-out network of ideologues and propagandists and by the well-organised RSS cadre force, aspires to occupy the centre-stage in Indian politics. The rise of religious fundamentalism in Iran and Pakistan, collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, serious setbacks in the Soviet Union coupled with the church assuming a crucial role — all these have provided it a conducive ideological environment. Back home, its success in exploiting religion for political ends has emboldened its spirits.

The 9th Lok Sabha, a hung one, was quite reflective of the major contradictions of Indian society, and of the emerging trends. If the South versus North contradiction was reflected in the pro- and anti-Congress waves, the rise of Hindu fundamentalism was represented by the rise of the BJP. The traditional Left’s resigning itself to the subsidiary role vis-a-vis Janata Dal had become quite apparent. The Akali Dal (Mann) swept the polls in Punjab, the BJP and even the IPF got their representations on their own independent planks.

VP Singh was faced with a Hobson’s choice. There was no way he could form government without BJP support. Overnight the formulations were changed ostensibly on ‘people’s pressure’.

Realisation dawned on him that there is nothing called value-based politics, rather values are based on the contingency of practical politics and that politics is nothing but the art of managing contradictions. In a fine acrobatic feat, the Left which had hardly anything to differentiate between the Congress and BJP, ‘between cholera and plague’ as described by EMS, changed its slogan from one of isolating the BJP to collaborating with it. Attempts were made to differentiate between BJP, the political party, and VHP, Bajrang Dal, Shiv Sena, the communal outfits. Rajeswar Rao even talked of positive socio-economic content in the BJP’s programme. The slogan of national unity and integrity came handy in justifying this collaboration and indeed Advani remarked that BJP’s views on national unity, on Pakistan, Punjab etc. are more akin to that of the Left than that of the Janata Dal. In private, left leaders went on claiming the success of their strategy in forcing the BJP to be responsible to the government and thus putting a brake on its communal frenzy, while at the same time keeping it out of the government. History has shown that actually this was a political fraud perpetrated on the people. A definite illusion was spread regarding the BJP and people were kept off-guard.

It was sheer naivete to expect BJP to give up the very Ram card that had paid it rich dividends and to believe that it would faithfully serve the Janata Dal government in the fashion of the Left. The BJP had made its intentions very clear from the very first day when it refused to accord unconditional support to the Janata Dal government and Advani declared his intention of acting both as the brake and the accelerator of the government. Things have moved only in the predictable direction. If the Left fails to find an explanation there is none to be blamed but itself for the political naivete it exhibited, for its political pragmatism, for its crime of diluting the struggle against religious fundamentalism. I still feel that the best tactics for the Left would have been to allow the Janata Dal and BJP to form the government at the Centre, and to reserve the role of playing as "the accelerator and the brake" for itself. This would have refurbished the independent image of the Left.

VP Singh began the second round of his political career with politics-based values and with skills in managing contradictions. His very ascendancy to prime ministership was a result of the shrewd gameplan of pitting Devi Lal against Chandrashekhar. Every support exacts its own price and at a juncture, despite all his attempts, it became impossible to contain the irrepressible Devi Lal, Chautala and company. One crisis after another rocked the Janata Dal and, ultimately, he had to part company with Devi Lal.

He rushed to implement all the unimportant declarations of his manifesto with which the people at large were least concerned. On the major issue of Bofors, his government failed to come out with any further evidence. On the contrary, the period of his rule has only swung the pointer away from Rajiv Gandhi in the Bofors case.

On Punjab he failed to take any initiative and soon lost rapport with Akali Dal (Mann) taking Punjab back to square one. Militant activities rose to a very high pitch in Kashmir as a reaction to the crucial presence of BJP, with its avowed demand of scrapping Article 370, in central power. VP Singh sought to tackle the problem the BJP way through Jagmohan, and thus, all semblance of political process was destroyed in Kashmir.

The economic situation worsened further and prices rose to astronomical proportions. The economic problems of Rajiv Gandhi’s period have only been compounded further and in the background of the Gulf crisis, Indian economy stands at the brink of collapse with the dangerous prospect of India joining the list of debt defaulters.

VP Singh’s style of all-party consensus soon became a farce. Forced to operate within a grim economic situation, encircled by the Congress waiting in the wings on the one hand, and on the other hand,the BJP bent on playing a decisive role, and threatened by the emerging Chandrashekhar-Devi Lal gang-up from within the party, his survival instinct led him to a sudden declaration of implementing the Mandal Commission report. It was a clear attempt at carving out a political territory for himself, enhancing his position within the Janata Dal and putting all his adversaries on the defensive. As the events proved, he had grossly miscalculated and, eventually, the implementation of Mandal recommendations signalled his downfall. His social base among his own castemen, Rajputs, dwindled. Powerful Jats of Haryana, UP and Rajasthan and several other major castes which had hitherto formed social base of the Janata Dal in the Hindi belt shifted their allegiance and the Chandrashekhar-Devi Lal company shot back into prominence.

Students and youth, particularly in and around Delhi, felt badly betrayed by a man on whom they had reposed great faith as an ideologue and had been expecting some sort of enhanced job opportunities as a result of his promise of making the right to employment a fundamental right. Instead, they found in him a scheming politician who was robbing them of whatever little job opportunities that were there. Their utter sense of frustration was reflected in the form of ‘self-immolation’ by scores of middle-class and lower middle class young boys and girls — a form so unusual with youth. The implementation of the Mandal report did consolidate his position among certain major backward castes but in no way was it a new addition. On the other hand, he lost a considerable segment of social support and, then, this angry outburst of students and youth in the form of self-immolation posed a serious moral question before his continuation in the office too.

The powerful media went against him and the Congress, the BJP as well as the Chandrashekhar-Devi Lal group shrewdly exploited his predicament.

VP Singh’s line of argument was that certain backward castes had already attained sufficient economic and political clout — due to the green revolution etc. — and were eligible to get a proportional share in the higher echelons of bureaucracy. Historically, as they had been socially and educationally backward, they could not compete on the basis of merit for a long time and the only way to ensure their representation wss through job reservations.

He further argued that it was not only a question of social justice but more that of social harmony: "Within the family whereas the elder brother should continue to enjoy greater power and authority, he should also grant some right to the younger brother, involving him too in the decision-making process."

Limited by the vision of a bourgeois politician, his essential concern was to incorporate within the ruling system those sections of backward castes who had already attained sufficient economic and political clout, i.e., the representative interests of the kulak lobby. Championing these narrow class interests in the name of common masses and even, revolution, has always been the art of bourgeois politics! Of course, this process of integration is an objective natural process and VP Singh or no VP Singh, it shall go on — sometimes through tension, and at other times with some adjustments here and there. Supporting this measure from a very different premise of advancement of class formation within castes, class polarisation and class struggle is an altogether different thing, but taking VP Singh on face value, terming the implementation of the Mandal Commission as some sort of revolution and rallying behind him, is tantamount to political foolishness and renouncing the class position of communists.

VP Singh’s expectation of political polarisation on backward-forward basis at an all-India level cutting across party lines reflects the wrong and narrow understanding of Lohiaite politicians. He was behaving in a foolhardy manner when he expected a split within the Congress and BJP on these lines, while calling for a conscience vote. Forward-backward caste contradiction is definitely one of the major social contradictions in Indian society, and in some states, particularly in Bihar, it does decide the mainstream of politics, but this is not an all-pervading contradiction. Viewed in isolation, the Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu symbolises the rise of backward castes against the forward castes, but then, the Tamil national identity, the South Indian identity, plays a still bigger role there. Dravid movement too has got divided into two major streams of DMK and AIADMK, and, in recent years the rise of other backwards like Vanniyars has been an important phenomenon.

Then again, backward castes do not operate as uniform single entities and are themselves engaged in internal rivalries even within Bihar. These often result in various alliances between certain forward and backward castes against such other combinations. In states like Bengal there is no distinct category of powerful backward castes and no forward-backward rivalry.

In UP, certain analysts believed Mulayam Singh to be the representative of the backward among backward castes, and he was supposed to be organising the poor and middle peasants against the kulak Jat lobby. By all accounts, be it on the issue of Mandal Commission or Ram Janmabhoomi, he was seen as the staunchest ally of VP Singh. However, traditional political rivalry reigned supreme here and VP’s attempts were objectively intended to carve out his own base in Uttar Pradesh at the cost of Mulayam Singh. The Mulayam Singh-Ajit Singh controversy too is a known affair and, essentially, the split in Janata Dal in UP is along the same lines. There is some substance in Mulayam Singh’s allegations that VP Singh through various manoeuvres did try to topple him. The Mulayam Singh-Chandrashekhar-Kanshi Ram alliance was taking shape in UP as against the VP-Ajit combine for some time and no serious political observer would have ignored the presence of the three on the dias of the 12th October central anti-communal rally. The rally was, at the same time, the indication of the sharpening factional struggle within the Janata Dal. Strangely, Messers Jyoti Basu and Indrajit Gupta, who too adorned the dias and sang laurels in praise of Mulayam, failed to notice the real politics behind this anti-communal fanfare. Modern political parties are not, and cannot be, simply the parties of backward or forward castes. Various caste and class combinations operate within them and their sum total reflects their bias towards a particular caste-class, more pronouncedly at particular junctures, and in essence only. Thereafter, they again move back to normalcy. For instance, the Hindu and forward caste bias is definitely the essence of Congress but it exhibits itself in a very complicated process.

The Mandal Commission did threaten the BJP in North India to some extent as it went against the latter’s drive towards Hindu unity. Its calculated move of Rathyatra and associating it with extreme positions was definitely a counter move. Advani had said that his arrest would prove disastrous. He proved prophetic. The VP government at the Centre fell, the Janata Dal split into many factions and the VP faction could ultimately retain power only in Bihar. The BJP has emerged as the main opposition in Parliament. Socially and politically the sum total of contradictions had already started operating against Mr.VP Singh. The withdrawal of BJP’s support was its outcome and provided the necessary catalyst for his fall. It was not simply the question of withdrawal of support by the 90-odd members of the BJP-Shiv Sena combine; it was, at the same time, the break up of Janata Dal and a new-found equation with the Congress.

The Chandrashekhar-Congress(I) combination essentially means the return of Congress rule through the back door. It is definitely an unstable alliance because Devi Lal and a section of the Janata Dal(S) cannot cooperate with Congress for long even if Chandrashekhar is absorbed within the Congress. We must therefore go to the masses both in anticipation of elections and for developing mass struggles.

VP Singh’s Janata Dal and the Left are back to the position of natural opposition, where we had already been waiting for them. To be sure, now there is greater scope for joint activities, collaboration and alliance between us and them, and, we must fully explore these possibilities. However, we must say some words of caution here. The menace of communalism and its representative party, the BJP, is no doubt threatening the very fabric of the Indian society. The left parties have made it the sole plank of their propaganda thrust. We must not forget that in practical politics this is a clever ploy to sell their line of trailing behind this or that bourgeois-landlord combination. The parallel efforts to unite and mobilise the masses on their basic issues, in democratic struggles and militant mass movements — the traditional and time-tested forms of the Left’s most effective challenge to fundamentalism and communalism — have been given a go by and they are not even considered as forms of struggle against communalism. Therefore, whereas the opportunist Left rests its hope on bourgeois politicians in anti-communal struggles, and keeps itself busy with facades like human-chains, seminars etc., fundamentalism continues to spread its tentacles into the minds of people at grassroots.

This ideological environment, the grim and hopeless economic crisis, the erosion of national identity built during anti-British struggles — all prop-up religious ideology as a force: Religion brings solace, Hindu identity appears as the only means of preserving national-identity and the BJP goes marching ahead towards its die-hard anti-communist and fascist goal. Revival of the Left’s legacy, its ideological and political offensive, its course of militant mass movements on basic and democratic issues is the only way to take on communalism. It is the backward social conditions, the lack of democratic consciousness, and economic desperation that provide fertile ground for the rise of fascism. The same conditions are also conducive to the advance of revolution provided the communists shed off all social-democratic and parliamentary illusions, if they dare to march independently and with the masses.

VP Singh and Laloo Yadav may go with us only to an extent. They and the BJP, now thrown into opposition again, may, step by step develop a rapport again under the banner of anti-Congressism. It began from Lohia who formulated this theory first in the 1960s and developed coordination with the then Jan Sangh. The same was repeated in 1977 within the Janata Party, and again in 1989 in a different form. While in opposition, they get closer, once in power they fall out. This is how the things stand. The CPI and CPI(M) are again spreading illusions about a decisive anti-Congress, anti-BJP secular combination having taken shape which can now only develop in a unilinear direction. If we allow ourselves to be misled by the appearances and place all our cards at the disposal of Messers VP Singh and Laloo Yadav, the Left would again be destined to suffer a rude shock. While keeping our doors open for any tactical, temporary and transitory alliances with secular and liberal forces of the bourgeoisie, let us march independently. The revolutionary situation has advanced in a favourable direction. The ruling classes are facing deep political instability. Instead of confining our activities within the bounds of parliamentarism and formalism, the time has come to boldly arouse the masses and daringly go in for militant mass struggles.

Let us hold high the banner of independence and of mass struggles.