Rear view: The rise of V.P. Singh

Rear view: The rise of V.P. Singh

Intrigue and confusion characterised the tenure of the National Front government.

Who had lost the 1989 general election was clear to all. It was Rajiv Gandhi. Even though he headed the largest party in the Lok Sabha with 197 seats, the number of seats he had lost was well over 200. In any case, he was in no position to form a government. However, no one seemed to know who exactly had won. For the defeated prime minister’s main challenger, V.P. Singh, had by his side only 154 MPs, an assortment of various elements of the late, unlamented Janata, collectively named the National Front (NF). The BJP that had been reduced to precisely two members in a House of 543 in the election held after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, now had a strength of 86. This was partly due to seat adjustments with Singh. The saffron party was, therefore, keen on supporting his government “from the outside”, if only to keep the Congress out. Remarkably, the other pole of the political spectrum, the CPM-led Left Front, also took the same position.

It was in the midst of tremendous goodwill and enthusiasm that the new government was sworn in on December 2, 1989. But the beginning was marred, partly because of the way the new rulers behaved and partly because of developments beyond their control. Like Morarji Desai — the man who, having spent most of his life as a senior Congress leader, headed the first non-Congress, indeed anti-Congress, government — Singh, too, had spent the bulk of his career in the Congress. Both men also shared a self-destructive streak of self-righteousness. Furthermore, both believed that they were “natural leaders” of any coalition, but insisted that they be elected unanimously.

(Illustration by: CR Sasikumar)
(Illustration by: CR Sasikumar)

In Morarji’s case, unanimity was brought about by two great leaders, Jayaprakash Narayan, better known as JP, whose movement against Indira Gandhi had led to the Emergency, and then to the dethronement of the “empress”, and Acharya Kripalani, a leader of the Nehru generation. Singh had no such helping hand. Chandra Shekhar, who was president of the Janata when it was in power, remained firm in his resolve to contest him. To call what Singh did next disingenuous would be the understatement of the century. He told Chandra Shekhar that he had agreed to the government being led by Devi Lal, the patriarch of Haryana politics and an over-assertive leader of the Jats, a caste of well-off farmers. Thereafter, Devi Lal was elected leader of the NF unanimously.

As pre-arranged, Devi Lal got up, profusely thanked everyone for doing him the honour and pointed out that he was old, that entire Haryana called him “tau” (elder uncle), and since he was unable to accept the job, he would suggest that Singh be chosen. Amidst cheers, the motion was carried. Chandra Shekhar was visibly livid. It took a few days for the government to be formed and ministerial responsibilities assigned. A remarkable and widely admired initiative of the new prime minister was to allocate the powerful home portfolio to Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, a “mainstream” politician from Kashmir. This was the first, and so far only, case of a Muslim being appointed India’s home minister.


Singh obviously hoped his move would be popular with Muslims in the country in general, and in the Kashmir Valley, then being ravaged by militancy since early 1989, in particular. What the reaction was elsewhere is immaterial, but what happened in Kashmir was shattering and was to be a major headache for the country for well over a decade. On December 8, the militants of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) kidnapped Mufti sahib’s daughter, Rubaiya Sayeed, a doctor, on way to work. For her release, they demanded that five specified JKLF activists be freed from detention. The state chief minister, Farooq Abdullah, refused to yield to the militants’ demand, but the prime minister overruled him. Five days later, the jailed militants were freed. Welcomed by a large crowd, they were marched through the streets of Srinagar amid provocative and ominous slogans. Rubaiya Sayeed was reunited with her family. Militants of all hues in the Valley considered the government’s capitulation a major victory and intensified their activities.

Alarmed by the fast deteriorating situation in Kashmir, the Union government sent back to the state as governor a competent and courageous administrator, Jagmohan, who had served in the same position for five years earlier. Abdullah resigned in protest against Jagmohan’s appointment. To prevent the situation from getting out of hand, Jagmohan imposed President’s Rule and dissolved the state assembly. No new government could be formed in the state without fresh elections, which were impossible given the egregious violence. In handling the challenge in Kashmir, the Central government was shockingly inept. The maverick George Fernandes, railway minister, was opposed to Jagmohan’s firm policy and wanted the problem to be solved through negotiations with the militants. He virtually took over as minister for Kashmir affairs, much to the annoyance of “the Mufti”.

Jagmohan was recalled.

It is necessary now to revert to the swearing-in of Singh’s council of ministers at Rashtrapati Bhavan. To be made deputy prime minister was Devi Lal’s price for his support to Singh. Before administering the oath of office, the president explained to him that, under the established procedure, he would be sworn in as a cabinet minister and appointed deputy prime minister immediately after the ceremony. But at every stage of oath-taking, Devi Lal went on proclaiming loudly that he was DPM. This was only a display of bad manners and crudity. However, what happened four hours later at nearby Haryana Bhavan was both startling and shabby. Devi Lal’s son, Om Prakash Chautala, was sworn in as Haryana’s chief minister. During the election campaign, the NF leaders had made snide remarks often enough about the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. On day one after coming to power, they proved that dynastic succession and the promotion of progeny were not the monopoly of the Congress.

The writer is a New Delhi-based political commentator