Thursday, July 06, 2006

V.P. Singh, a dangerous dilettante

Think of it. After Mr V. P. Singh managed to defeat the Congress Party led by Rajiv Gandhi in the 1989 Lok Sabha elections, there have been five prime ministers – P.V.Narasimha Rao (Congress), Deve Gowda, I.K.Gujral (Janata Dal), Atal Bihari Vajpayee (Bharatiya Janata Party), Manmohan Singh (Congress). India did not have a prime minister from the Nehru-Gandhi family for 17 years now, the span that Jawaharlal Nehru served as prime minister. It seems that India and the Congress Party are entering a new phase in their history. Dynasty enthusiasts might resent the development, and still pin their hopes on the possibility of the return of a member of the Family as prime minister. Others will argue, and with a certain amount of plausibility, that in the cases of Rao and Singh, it was Mrs Sonia Gandhi who provided the background ballast which is an enabling factor in being the prime minister. Though V.P.Singh was prime minister for a mere 11 months, he may be credited by history of ending the rule of Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, with some help from Fate which effected the cruel assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. So, V.P.Singh may have been a mere pawn on history’s chessboard, but he has turned out to be a crucial pawn, who has effected an important transition in Indian politics.

Can V.P.Singh take credit for the accidental unfolding of a historical change? That is a question which needs to be debated. But the fact remains that V.P.Singh is the first man to have challenged the authority of Rajiv Gandhi to be the prime minister, and with some help from a supportive and partisan media, succeeded in scraping through the 1989 elections. V.P.Singh clothed this challenge to the dynasty not as personal ambition, but as a matter of principle. How principled was he? There were barely any principles involved in it if we look at his moves. He pretended to expose corruption in the system and saw that as a way of gaining an upper hand over a naïve Rajiv Gandhi. That is what he did when he carried out raids against Indian corporate heads when he was finance minister, and went to the extent of harassing old man Kirloskar. The only man who saw through the cunning of V.P.Singh was the then editor of The Times of India, Girilal Jain. When the rest of the English media was lionising Singh, Jain pointed to his cunning ambition. He said that Singh was a feudal who wanted to humiliate corporate India through the raids. When Singh began to probe the HDW defense deals over the head of prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, Jain pointed out that there cannot be two swords in a scabbard. It wads a plain reference to his unashamed ambition to be prime minister.

During the 1989 election campaign, Singh would again play a cunning game. He said that he would not share a platform with the BJP. But he was not loath to have a secret understanding with the saffron party against the Congress. Singh wanted to preserve his fictitious credentials of a secularist. And after the election, when his National Front did not have sufficient numbers, he did not hesitate to bend his knee before the BJP to let him form the government. So much for his secular principles. Look at how he came to be elected as prime minister. He would not say that he would be prime minister because he led the rebellion against Rajiv Gandhi and the Congress. He proposes the name of Devi Lal, who in turn proposes V.P.Singh - a stratagem that disgusted the veteran politician, Chandra Shekhar, no end at the Janata Dal meeting.

The defining moment of his prime ministerial term was the announcement of the implementation of the recommendations of the Mandal Commission, offering about 45,000 jobs in Public Sector Undertakings (PSUs) for the Other Backward Classes (OBCs). Again there was no ideological commitment behind the move. He wanted to pre-empt Devi Lal’s massive farmers’ rally which was scheduled to be held the following week. His decision to implement Mandal Commission recommendations was not an attempt to stall the growing belligerence of the BJP over the Babri Masjid issue. But his cohorts in the media – and there are too many of them – want to picture V.P.Singh, the Mandal messiah as the secular knight-errant who wanted to counter Hindutva.

What marks out Singh’s politics are not principles or ideology, but a deep cunning that characterises a decadent feudal class, and villainous personal ambition. It is true that he did not succeed beyond a point. He has proved to be an interloper in Indian politics, and like all interlopers enjoyed short-lived success. It will be difficult for any one to talk about the political stakes of V.P.Singh unlike in the case of an equally unsuccessful politician and former prime minister Chandra Shekhar. The Thakur from Ballia may be as cynical as V.P.Singh, but he showed a rare grasp of Indian politics, and his concern for the poor in India was never in question. On the other hand, V.P.Singh comes across as a decadent Lucknowi nawab, with a passing interest in the affairs of the country. It is not surprising that Singh dabbles in poetry and painting. He was a dabbler in politics as well, with a touch of cynical aestheticism. He is the Wajid Ali Shah of contemporary Indian politics, a dangerous dilettante.

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