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The Populist Raja

Some politicians have the unique fortune of being at the centre of history’s major cross-currents.

Written by Pratapbhanumehta |
November 28, 2008 2:27:32 am

Some politicians have the unique fortune of being at the centre of history’s major cross-currents. But those very currents then move to marginalise them and render their achievement more ambiguous. Vishwanath Pratap Singh had the unique privilege of playing a pivotal part in India’s history in so many ways. In a way his political career came to embody so many of the contradictions of modern Indian history, and the tragedies of its politics. 

He built up a considerable reputation as a politician of principle. His offer of resignation as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh when he failed to fulfil his promises, and his subsequent resignation from the Congress offered glimpses to many of a principled politician not clinging to power at all costs; yet this harbinger of the politics of principle ended up in the clutches of a politics of opportunism far more insidious than the one he made his name opposing. It is also all too easy to forget the absolutely vital role he played in weakening the legitimacy of the Congress; yet he was unable to create any alternative, enduring party structure, and may even have fomented a political style that encouraged ultra-factionalism. By associating himself with the Bofors issue, he managed to make corruption a central political issue in a way that no politician since his time has managed to do; yet the cumulative impact of the Bofors issue on corruption in retrospect seems to have been negligible. It is was during his tenure as prime minister that we got a first glimpse of the conflicted responses the Indian state had to the crisis in Kashmir: soft in negotiating in some respects, overcompensating by trying to send a signal of toughness in other respects — such as in the appointment of Jagmohan as governor. He staked his ground as a secularist, but the motley of political parties that took up that banner under his name were unable to prevent secularism’s slide into crisis. 

But he did single-handedly transform the master narrative of Indian politics, through the implementation of the Mandal Commission Report. Much of what one makes of him depends upon what one thinks of the subsequent history of caste politics in North India. His actions certainly led to an unprecedented consolidation of the OBCs as a political identity in North India, and it opened up space for new political groups. Whether this was simply empowering an already empowered group, or genuine social justice, remains a contested question. But there is no doubt that a significant faultline of Indian politics and policy is still very much governed by the terms of discourse that V.P. Singh set in motion. The Mandalisation of Indian politics has, perhaps in an unfortunate way, endured for longer than anyone could have imagined and its full dialectic is yet to play out.  

V.P. Singh was a remarkably intelligent man with a serious set of ideas. Even though he identified as a socialist, he was one of the few politicians to put liberalisation on the table, well before its time — though subsequently he claimed to have been devoured by the very businesses for which he was trying to create an opportune environment. But in the end his incomparably important political life is a remarkable case study in the contradictions of our politics. He was unusually successful in a kind of oppositional role, but that very disposition made him less effective in building enduring institutions. His tenure as UP chief minister was perhaps the last opportunity the Congress had to stem its now terminal decline in that state. He was an inveterate moderniser in most of his outlook; but in the end could not think of politics without using the encrusted categories of caste and religion. Like many gifted politicians he could reach out in remarkable ways when he needed to, and he most poignantly did so in Punjab. But the ability to reach out was the obverse side of real comfort with factionalism. He could genuinely don the mantle of social justice, but not prevent it from sliding it into populism. He was a man of great reflection, and cultivation, with occasional glimpses of a wistful inwardness and powers of empathy that were quite remarkable. Yet in his public life these were often allowed to subordinate themselves to an extraordinary shrewdness. Perhaps these contradictions raise more questions about the character of our politics than they do about V.P. Singh the man. But his was a remarkable political life; the best testament to it is that we are still coming to term with its effects.

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The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi

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