On April 17, 1999, during the discussion on the vote of confidence moved by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, members entered into a heated argument on whether then Orissa CM Giridhar Gamang, who had not quit his Lok Sabha seat, could vote.
It was a simple rule cited by Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, RJD leader and a second-term Lok Sabha member, that proved to be the clincher: after the Speaker has put a motion to vote, he said, the voting takes precedence over any other matter. Bound by this rule, Speaker GMC Balayogi left it to the conscience of Gamang. Gamang voted against the motion and the Vajpayee government lost — by a single vote.
That was Raghuvansh Prasad Singh — a true socialist leader who, though never known as an orator or speaker, managed to attract the attention of his ideological fellow travellers and his political adversaries for his plainspeak on issues that he chose to champion. On Sunday, Singh, 74, died at AIIMS in New Delhi. He had been suffering from health complications following his recovery from Covid-19. He is survived by two sons and a daughter.
In a message on Sunday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “Raghuvansh Prasad Singh’s death has created a void not just in Bihar politics but in national politics. He had been unhappy (with his party) and had also written to Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar to raise certain demands. Nitishji and I should fulfil them.”
A socialist by political training, Singh learnt most of his political activism from Lohiaite socialist leader Karpoori Thakur in whose government he worked after getting elected to the Bihar Assembly. Until 1996, when he was first elected to the Lok Sabha, Singh remained confined to state politics.
Singh not only backed Lalu Prasad Yadav when it came to the question of who would inherit Karpoori Thakur’s legacy, but stuck to Lalu’s brand of hard secularism even as his fellow travellers — George Fernandes, Sharad Yadav and Nitish — parted ways to align with the BJP-led NDA in subsequent years.
His decision to stick to Lalu was not only ideological but also a practical one for his future politics. Though he had been active in state politics since the Emergency. Singh was never a mass leader and therefore, relied on Lalu’s mass base to keep himself politically afloat.
While he had no hesitation in admitting to Lalu’s mass appeal, he didn’t mince words while cautioning the RJD chief of the limits of his caste politics. He did so mostly in his private conversations with party leaders and journalists, fully aware that his words will reach Lalu’s ears.
“Laluji used to say ‘Socialey factor se hum raaj kar lenge!’, but that was not to be,” Singh had told The Indian Express during an Idea Exchange programme in October 2007.
His warnings on the limitations of caste coalition politics came true in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in UP, when the SP-BSP coalition failed to halt the BJP. Singh himself lost the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections, burdened by Lalu’’s ‘social factor’ formula.
It was a formula that failed in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections as well, when Lalu ditched the Congress and allied with Ram Vilas Paswan’s LJP, only to suffer a humiliating defeat and end up losing the seat at the UPA-II table. Though Singh was re-elected in 2009, he could not be accommodated in the UPA-II government despite his equation with Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh.
Singh had earned their goodwill from his record as Rural Development Minister in UPA-I, during which he got one of India’s most ambitious rights-based welfare legislation, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, off the ground.
He lived the life of a socialist dissenter and remained committed to his principles, sometimes at great personal cost. He would not hesitate to spill the beans of Cabinet deliberations, for instance, when he believed that the interest of the industry was gaining more attention than socialist demands.
Though Lalu and Singh had several differences of opinion, the RJD chief always bounced his major political decisions off Singh, knowing fully well that it may not get his approval. He was keen on getting Singh’s stamp of moral authority on his decisions. This was also Lalu’s way of keeping Singh in good humour while having his own way.
Singh, on his part, knew that as leader, Lalu had to take risks and his job was to abide by his decisions once taken.
In an emotional farewell to his long-time friend, Lalu tweeted on Sunday, “Dear Raghuvansh Babu, what have you done? I just told you the day before yesterday that you are not going anywhere. But you went so far. I am speechless and sad. You will always be in my memories.”
Singh’s relationship with Lalu, which lasted 32 years after the death of Karpoori Thakur, started fraying with Lalu in jail and his sons taking charge of the RJD affairs.
His disillusionment at the way Lalu’s children were trying to steer the RJD away from the Karpoori Thakur legacy became apparent when, a few months ago, Singh resigned as party vice-president. On Thursday, he said in a two-line handwritten letter he wrote to Lalu from his hospital bed: “I stood behind you for 32 years after the death of Jannayak Karpoori Thakur. Not any longer.”
The RJD chief replied in his own hand, writing in Hindi from a hospital in Ranchi: “…I cannot believe (that you have resigned from the RJD). My family and I want you to recover fast, and to see you standing among us. For the last four decades, we have sat together to make political, social, and even family decisions together. You should first recover, and we can then talk it out. You are not going anywhere. I am telling you.”
Singh left. It was his final act of dissent.
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