V P Singh, known to his constituents and colleagues as Raja Saheb, became the nation’s Prime Minister in 1989 with enormous goodwill, but his tenure was short lived. Had he been alive today, Vishwanath Pratap Singh would have been 84.
As Principal Information Officer, I first came into contact with him when he was the Finance Minister in Rajiv Gandhi’s government. Rajiv Gandhi, when he became the Prime Minister, was known as ‘Mr. Clean’. V P Singh wanted to be known as ‘Super Clean’.
V P Singh, who was known as the Raja of Manda, became the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, but had resigned following the controversy over the dacoit menace in the state. When Rajiv Gandhi became the Prime Minister, he was appointed the Finance Minister.
As Finance Minister, he wanted a case to be filed against the Times of India for a mistake in its reporting. I went and saw him and convinced him that I will have a correction published, instead of a case which would go on for years. He reluctantly agreed.
Soon, he organised raids against high profile tax evaders like Dhirubhai Ambani. He had also entrusted the task of investigating the illegal stacking of foreign exchange in overseas banks by Indians to Fairfax, an American agency. The impression was gaining ground that he was not an easy member of the Rajiv Gandhi cabinet.
He was shifted to the Defence Ministry. When I met him in South Block, he said his heart was not in the job. The Bofors controversy had emerged. Soon, V P Singh initiated action to investigate the HDW submarine deal. Following the controversy, he resigned as the Defence Minister in 1987, and also from the Congress, and formed the Janata Dal.
In the 1989 elections, when Rajiv Gandhi lost power, V P Singh’s Janata Dal, which was in a minority, was supported by the BJP and the Left Front, and he became the Prime Minister of the United Front Government. He had the image of a clean politician and the nation expected that he would be heading an effective and efficient administration.
By the time he could settle down, the Kashmir insurgency erupted and he had to face disruptions within his cabinet when Devi Lal, who was the Deputy Prime Minister, organised demonstrations in Delhi to prove his mass base. V.P. Singh saw this as a challenge and forced him to resign, the alternative being that he would be sacked.
On Independence Day, V P Singh indicated his support for the Mandal Commission recommendations, which supported reservations in Government jobs on the basis of caste. The Mandal Commission was appointed by the Janata Government in the late seventies when it was in office, and it had submitted the report when Indira Gandhi was in power. The recommendations had been sent to the state governments for their reaction.
Even though the reactions to the recommendations had not been received from most of the states, V P Singh decided to implement its recommendations, which had provided for 27 percent reservation in government jobs for the backward classes. This was in addition to the reservation of 22 percent jobs for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, which was already in force.
The BJP saw this move by V P Singh as a step to prepare for the next elections. It decided to withdraw support to the V P Singh government.
L K Advani announced his Rath Yatra, the first in a series, which took place from Somnath Temple in the West to Ayodhya in the East. He was arrested when the Rath Yatra entered Bihar.
The acceptance of the Mandal Commissions recommendations resulted in outbreak of widespread disturbances in Delhi and other parts of the country. Rajiv Goswami, a university student, self immolated himself in Delhi on September 19, 1990.
I recall that in September 1990, I was travelling with V.P. Singh to Kerala. Late Prabash Joshi was also with us. I pointed out to V.P. Singh that the constituency that supported him during the election-the intellectuals and the middle class-was unhappy. They elected him with the expectation that he would provide a clean government to the country. He agreed and said that he was looking for a new constituency.
The Mandal Commission recommendations were designed to be his new platform for popular support. But he had to resign as the Prime Minister when the BJP withdrew support in the Parliament.
I was in touch with him even after he resigned as the Prime Minister. I recall that when Jyoti Basu declined to be the Prime Minister of the United Front Government in 1996, V P Singh was offered the post of the Prime Minister again, but he declined.
When I went and saw him during that time, he told me that he could not accept the post of the Prime Minister because of his poor health. At the cutting edge, India needed a physically fit Prime Minister, he told me.
Much later, I had a conversation with Inder Kumar Gujral, who was elected as the Prime Minister. Gujral said it is not easy to say ‘No’ when you are asked to become the Prime Minister of the country. You need a different mettle to do so. And V P Singh had that mettle.
Mr. I. Ramamohan Rao is a former Principal Information Officer to the Government of India. He can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org.
By I. Ramamohan Rao