It is hard to believe that Vishwanath Pratap Singh, who lost his long battle against cancer last week, was active on the national political stage for a mere seven years. He was inducted into the Union cabinet in 1984 by Rajiv Gandhi, resigned as prime minister in 1990 and faded into relative obscurity after the 1991 elections. Singh used these seven years to change India forever.
He was the man chosen by Rajiv Gandhi to start hacking away at the chains that had bound the Indian economy for several decades. He was the original reformer. Business houses will also remember the raids he ordered against tax offenders, which were not as unjustified as many believe.
But Singh was both complex and ambitious. He used the Bofors controversy to launch an attack against Rajiv Gandhi, and indirectly scuttled the latter’s fresh ideas to liberate India’s economy, take the country towards the 21st century and reform our tired and corrupt political culture. For all his faults, Rajiv Gandhi was on the right track. The revolt against him led by Singh was damaging.
That revolt succeeded in doing what others had tried earlier: Ram Manohar Lohia in the 1960s and Jayaprakash Narayan in the 1970s had cobbled together rainbow alliances to break the Congress monopoly. They had limited success. Singh brought together a motley bunch of socialists, and was supported by both the Bharatiya Janata Party and the communists in his quest for power. Bereft of ideological glue, this unlikely alliance fell apart. But the Congress has not been able to rule India on its own since then.
But Singh’s most controversial move was to implement the recommendations of the Mandal Commission, which promised job quotas for the other backward castes. That was noxious and cynical Lohiate politics at its worst. India was on the brink of a caste war even as L.K. Advani fanned communal fires with the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. And India was also stumbling towards a huge economic crisis.
Singh’s last active years in national politics were the darkest the country had ever seen since independence. We cannot help but wonder whether India would have been better off if he had stayed by Rajiv Gandhi’s side.
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