May 7, 2021 4:14:47 am
AN IIT graduate who stumbled into politics to take up the legacy of his legendary father Chaudhary Charan Singh, Ajit Singh would go on to become a consummate politician who moved effortlessly from the BJP to the Congress, and from the Socialists to Communists — as the situation demanded — to keep the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) relevant above and beyond its electoral strength.
On Thursday, the RLD supremo, who had handed over the baton to his son Jayant Chaudhary, passed away in Gurgaon due to Covid-19 complications, at the age of 82.
While never rising to the heights of Charan Singh, who served briefly as prime minister, the affable and ever-smiling Ajit Singh ensured that the RLD remained a key contender in Hindi-belt politics — retaining its fertile support base among farmers, cutting across regions. As recently as February, parties seeking to tap into the farmer anger against the Centre were knocking at RLD doors.
However, Singh was often accused of using his astuteness and deal-making skills more for short-term political survival. And of not allowing ideological rigidities to come in the way as he sought out partners in his long-nursed dream of a third front.
The RLD supremo remained constrained in this due to his limitations as a leader, particularly when compared to his father, with his electoral appeal not growing beyond Western Uttar Pradesh and, more specifically, the Muslim and Jat communities of the region. Over the years, Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav got the better of him and emerged as the undisputed socialist leader of the Hindi belt.
An alumnus of IIT-Kharagpur and Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago, Singh was working in the US when Charan Singh took ill in the early 1980s and suffered a paralytic stroke. With his father hospitalised, Singh returned and took over the leadership of the Lok Dal (as the party was known at the time) in the mid-1980s, and never looked back. In July 1986, he was elected to the Rajya Sabha. Less than a year later, after Charan Singh’s death, Singh took over as president of the Lok Dal (A).
Singh’s old colleague and senior JD(U) leader K C Tyagi remembers him as an accidental politician. “Ajit Singh was not interested in entering politics. But because of the unexpected demise of his father, he had to… fill the vacuum.”
Around 1988, as several Janata factions including the Lok Dal (A) merged to form the Janata Dal, Ajit Singh became its president. Chandra Shekhar was believed to have helped him become the president to counter V P Singh. However, Singh soon shifted loyalties and joined hands with V P Singh — in the first of his many somersaults.
In 1989, the Janata Dal won the Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, and Singh was touted to be the chief minister with V P Singh’s support. However, at this stage, Mulayam Singh Yadav — who was to take over as Deputy CM — unexpectedly threw his hat in the ring. After much behind-the-scenes drama and political lobbying, Yadav trumped Singh in a secret political ballot. Singh could never catch on with the SP chief after that in the state.
When V P Singh became the PM after the 1989 elections, he picked Ajit Singh as Industry Minister. With his footprint in UP confined, Singh would from then on serve many stints as Union minister, under different governments of different hues.
In the early 1990s, he split the Janata Dal and floated the Janata Dal (A), before joining the Congress headed by P V Narasimha Rao after his party was wiped out in UP in the 1991 Assembly elections. In 1995, he was made Union Food Minister. In 1996, Singh entered the Lok Sabha for the third time, but soon quit the Congress and his Lok Sabha membership. He came back to the House the following year in a by-election.
In 1999, Singh formed the RLD. While, at the time, he accused the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led BJP government of turning the Kargil war into an election issue, two years later, he joined the NDA and became an Agriculture Minister.
In 2009, a year after voting against the Manmohan Singh-led UPA I government in a no-confidence motion, Singh flipped again and joined the UPA. Subsequently, he held first the Chemicals and Fertilizers and then the Civil Aviation Ministry under Manmohan Singh.
Having held on to its base all these years, the RLD finally buckled under the overwhelming rise of Narendra Modi-led BJP in UP. The party drew a blank in the state in both the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections, and won one out of the 277 seats it fought in the 2017 Assembly polls.
However, lately, in a twist of fate that Ajit Singh would have appreciated, the RLD was being talked of as an alternative again in western UP, amidst farmer anger over the new agricultural laws by the Centre. Jayant Chaudhary held a series of rallies across the state on the issue, sharing the stage with, among others, Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi.
In one of his last public appearances, Singh himself addressed a kisan mahapanchayat in Baghpat in western UP along with Jayant Chaudhary and BKU leader Rakesh Tikait on February 28, where he gave a call for farmers’ unity to uproot the BJP government.
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