At one time, Buta Singh was the Home Minister in Rajiv Gandhi’s government — fighting his leader’s tricky political battles, he was counted among the most powerful of Rajiv’s loyalists in the Congress then. At another point, he was a minister – although for just a month –in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government.
And years later, Singh was a controversial Governor who had to step down after a strong indictment by the Supreme Court.
Singh’s career was often dogged by controversies but the wily politician had an uncanny instinct for political survival.
Singh, the veteran who had served as a minister with four Prime Ministers during his nearly six decade-long political career, died on Saturday. He was 86.
Singh was in coma since October 2020, when he was admitted to AIIMS after suffering a brain hemorrhage. His family said Singh died around 7.10 am.
Singh began his political career with the Akali Dal in the 1960s. He was elected to Lok Sabha for the first time in 1962 on an Akali Dal ticket from Moga in Punjab but switched to the Congress soon. He was reelected to Lok Sabha in 1967, the second time from Ropar on a Congress ticket. In all, he was an eight-term Lok Sabha MP.
He became a minister for the first time in 1974; there was no looking back after that.
Singh was a deputy minister for railways in the Indira Gandhi government in the 1970s, and when the Congress was thrown out of power after Emergency, he was appointed a general secretary of AICC in 1978. He was a junior minister and then a cabinet minister when Indira returned to power in 1980 but his glorious days came during the Rajiv era, when he became the Home Minister in 1986.
It was perhaps Rajiv’s attempt to send a signal to the Sikh community after Indira’s assassination, but Singh courted controversy by defending Operation Blue Star. He was excommunicated. Years later, he atoned for his “sins” by washing dishes and cleaning shoes at gurudwaras.
But more than that, his term as Home Minister will be remembered for the Rajiv Gandhi government’s decision to allow shilanyas of a Ram temple at the disputed site in Ayodhya in 1989, and his role in bringing down many elected chief ministers, including in Tamil Nadu.
Years later, Singh said that the decision to allow shilanyas was taken by the Cabinet subcommittee headed by P V Narasimha Rao, and that he was only a member of that group. The decision, he had said, had Rajiv Gandhi’s approval.
Singh was inducted into the Narasimha Rao cabinet in 1995 and given charge of civil supplies and consumer affairs portfolio but had to step down a year later after his name cropped up in the Jain hawala case. Their ties also soured and led to his exit from the Congress.
In 1998, he joined the Vajpayee government as Communications minister – he had resigned from the Congress by then. But Singh had to resign within a month after the Supreme Court ordered that charges be framed against him in the JMM bribery case. In 2000, a special CBI court convicted both Rao and Singh in the JMM bribery case but the two were acquitted later by the High Court.
Singh returned to the Congress during the Sonia Gandhi era and was rehabilitated in the party – he was sent as Governor of Bihar during the UPA era but controversy, ironically, remained his constant companion. The Bihar Assembly elections in February 2005 threw up a fractured mandate. With no party in a position to form the government, President’s Rule was imposed in the first week of March. Two months later, the NDA claimed it had the support of 115 MLAs. The JD(U) and BJP had managed the support of some LJP leaders and Independents.
Governor Singh alerted the President that this could lead to horse-trading and recommended dissolution of the Assembly on May 21. The Union Cabinet met at midnight and faxed the Governor’s report to President A P J Abdul Kalam, who was in Moscow at the time. Kalam approved the recommendation within two hours, and the Assembly was dissolved.
The Supreme Court later came down heavily on Buta Singh. In its interim order, the apex court held the Assembly’s dissolution as unconstitutional. In its final judgment, the court held that the Governor had misled the Centre and pointed out that the Union Council of Ministers should have cross-checked before accepting his recommendation.
Singh had to resign.
He was later appointed head of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes.
Modi tweeted, “In the passing of Shri Buta Singh, the country has lost one of the longest serving parliamentarians with rich administrative experience. He championed the cause of the oppressed and marginalized…” Kovind tweeted: “Saddened to learn about the passing away of Shri Buta Singh Ji. He was an able administrator & parliamentarian…”
Rahul Gandhi posted, “In the demise of Sardar Buta Singh Ji, the country has lost a true public servant and a loyal leader. He devoted his entire life in the service of the country and the well-being of people, for which he will always be remembered…”