It has been a decade since the passing away of former prime minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh, and in this time, no government has acted to give my grandfather (Babba) his due. Not a single memorial to honour his efforts to bring social justice to India. The “Mandal Messiah” who empowered millions of underprivileged Indians through an affirmative action programme, today suffers political disenfranchisement and abandonment by those in positions of power.
Babba would have been honoured to be alongside other unsung heroes of India like B R Ambedkar and Sardar Vallabhbahi Patel, whose achievements are being co-opted by the ruling elites for electoral gains. A deeply devout man, he was firmly rooted in the philosophy of the Bhagvad Gita, of Nishkaam Karma, dispassionate action. As we remembered him on his 10th death anniversary pm November 27, I was reminded of his poem, “Mein aur vakt”, which describes his sacrifice and his life: “Mein aur vakt/ kaafile ke aage-aage chale/ chauraahe par / main ek or mudaa/ baaki vaqt ke saath chale gaye” (“Time and I walked/ Ahead of the caravan/ At the cross-roads I turned/ The others, kept time.”
In another poem, he writes: “Muflis se ab chor ban raha hoon mein/ Par es bhare baazaar se/ churaaun kyaa/ Yaha vahi cheezei saji hain/ jinhe lutaakar/ main muflis ban chukaa hoon.” (From a pauper/ I’m becoming a thief/ But this grand bazaar is full of things I gave away/ To become a pauper, now what should I steal?) Singh could never become a successful thief, but he did manage to expose corporate thieves and the hand-in-glove workings of politicians and corporations. His mission was to erode black economy by taking the beast head on. With his new economic policy and anti-corruption drives, he immersed himself into cleaning the trough of corrupt, unbridled power.
He compared corrupt industrialists to the British Raj and the East India Company. He also believed in the free-market, but not for a market of the 1 per cent: “If we adopt a market-driven economy, then it also comes with a responsibility for all participants of the economy. Everyone should have the same starting point. It is highly unfair that a few using unjust means, get to stand 20 feet away from the finish line and upon winning the race, praise the free market. This is not a free market, but an oligarchy.”
As finance minister he called himself the “referee” and not the master of banks. In 1985-86 he asked the banks to adopt a “business-centric approach”, providing them autonomy over their decisions. In a jovial mood he once told us, “I was only the referee. My job is to ensure that the field is square and not round. It is not for me to kick the ball or score a goal. That is the bank’s decision.”
It was the Bofors scandal that found Singh at, perhaps, the strangest crossroads of his life. On the one hand, he only had faith in the truth, and, on the other, lay his career and life’s work. He was quick to choose the truth and expose the massive defence kickbacks within the Indian political system.
Singh travelled all over India, uniting the north and south, left and right, to give India a government that stood for honesty. He was quick to fulfill his manifesto promises and ensured that Ambedkar received a Bharat Ratna. His government presented the most farmer-friendly budget that India has ever seen. But the forces of destruction had their eyes set on him. His old nemesis, backed by the oligarchs of Indian corporations, set out to destroy his government. Despite hurdles, he decided to implement the long-shelved affirmative action programme, the Mandal Commission. He always said, “India is first and all her children deserve her love and respect. If as the prime minister, I don’t do it, who will?”
It is sad that neither in his home state, Uttar Pradesh, or Allahabad, the city he belonged to, nor in Delhi, a single memorial has been constructed to commemorate his services to his motherland. But perhaps, Babba wouldn’t have wanted it, maybe even hated it. If more farmers or people in the cities needed to be displaced to build his memorial, he would have preferred none. So, have no memorial for VP Singh, for he needs none. He lives in the hearts of the people of this country.