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Finding Vishwanath Pratap Singh…

It’s been 10 long years, since my grandfather VP Singh passed away in 2008. As pyre burned on the ghats of Allahabad, India had lost her last socialist son and I lost out on the last chance to say a final good bye.
Barely eighteen then, I gazed at the cremation ghats where millions of people, along with military bands and politicians had come to pay their last respects to the Mandal Messiah.It was the first time after his death, I felt the enormity of VP Singh.
Between Gaharvaar Thakur “Kayda”/ etiquettes, boarding schools and Singh’s rapidly deteriorating health, we barely had time to talk at length on “serious things”, perhaps I was too young, and he was too depleted from his physical condition.
Echoes of “Raja nahi fakir tha, desh ki Taqdir tha,” were dying out, the military band had stopped playing, but a question lingered for me. Who really was my grandfather, who was VP Singh to these people?
Why do the people, be they haters or admirers, so respect him?
Ten years ago that moment started in me a quest fto find VP Singh and receive his love through the countless lives he touched. Today as we celebrate his 87th birth anniversary, I decided to share some of the glimpses of this journey to find VP Singh.
Vishwanath Pratap Singh was the 7th prime minister of India, who went on to be known as the Mandal Messiah for his decision to implement the Mandal Commission. He came to the limelight earlier as the Mr Clean firebreand finance minister in the Rajiv Gandhi Cabinet, spearheading a vigilance drive to expose and prosecute big business for illegal operations and corruption. Under pressure from the angry corporate houses, he was shifted to the Defence Ministry, Singh was not dismayed by the transfer, and quickly put his energies to clean up the defence ministry. During this time, he exposed the Bofors scandal which ultimately led to the downfall of the Rajiv Gandhi government. A master of coalition politics in 1989 he became the second non-Congress prime minister with the support of the Left and Right political parties.
One of his first moves as prime minister wasto honour B R Ambedkar with a Bharat Ratna posthumously and bring out the most farmers focused budget ever.
In a decade, I have searched for anecdotes and stories from the corridors of St Stephen College to the coast of Odisha. I came across students of my alma mater at the time who were VP Singh’s team, fought for him and then were the first to protest against his affirmative action program.
People who claimed to help him escape the violence at St Stephen College to campaign in Bihar, who rode their motorcycles along with their “Raja Bahadur” to incumbent state government ministers who stood up in respect for VP Singh even today. Most of them naturally being from league of socialist- Lohia – JP politicians and cadre who had countless stories of encounters with VP Singh.
But to really find VP Singh, I had to find an insider outside family. So the journey swerved and I found myself in a warm living room, conversing with the old purvanchi grandmaster of tales from the Indian subcontinent, Sir Mark Tully. Our family finds many mentions in his stories around India and especially in the Purvanchal area. He was a very close friend of the family and yet VP Singhs harshest critic. “Mrs. Singh told me a little after VP’s funeral, that you have been hard on my husband,” he said.
In Tully’s own words, VP Singh was “a typical Congress man, unduly loyal to the Congress party” with an “image of incorruptibility and dedication to root out corruption”.
Often in conversation with Sant Bux Singh,(Singh’s brother) he would joke that VP Singh wanted to be “Whiter than white and cleaner than clean”. Tully being a loyal friend, has unequivocally preferred Sant Bux over his brother VP Singh. In his story The Tale of Two Brothers, perhaps he has slightly overlooked VP Singh, who was inundated with passion for social justice and preferred to sacrifice family for honesty.
Well 30 years is long time to recall but I wanted to coax the white wizard of stories for two more memories, one on VP Singh’s honesty and the other on his affirmative action through Mandal Commission to put the puzzle together.
“I don’t at any point see VP Singh involved in any personal corruption,” Tully said. I questioned him further on the funding for the Janata Dal government, various corporate corruption allegations, rift with Reliance, etc and repeatedly Tully said “It was a different time then, people really believed in VP Singh. It also my belief that it was Chandra Shekhar and the rest who got money for the party. Maybe Arun Singh or Ramnath Goenka would have deeper knowledge of this. For what I know, VP Singh was an honest man.”
But what about Singh’s social justice program, the Mandal commission. Sadly most upper caste Hindus have been virulent in their attack on VP Singh. Ever year on his birth anniversary and other days too, trolls do their bit and still channelise their personal failures into hate directed against VP Singh. Instead of democracy and social justice, they dream of a supreme Hindu state under upper caste hegemony, and demand of all us Hindus to tilt our sacred swastika to 45 degrees.
Tully soon after began to remember the Indian political situation 1989-1990s. “Back then the Indian political scenario was completely controlled by the upper caste Hindus, whether it be the BJP, Congress or the left. They controlled Indian politics.”
He said that the implementation of the Mandal Commission, “transformed India politically by increasing political awareness, broke open the political dynamic of India by providing increased political power to a majority of Indians and in particular increased the power of the OBCs politicians like Mulayam Singh, Nitish Kumar, etc.”
In this journey to find VP Singh, I discovered the one truth about him. He was a principled, honest and a fair man and this determined all his action.
VP Singh was not just a politician, but a painter, a poet too. These were perhaps the only two windows into his soul. On one of the crossroads of this journey I spoke with Dr Vandana Shiva, renowned scientist and environmentalist, who still cherishes a painting given to her by Singh himself. “He was one of the most sensitive and creative soul, who was always willing to take on the tough fight for the people. Even though he was battling cancer and was on constant dialysis he had an indomitable spirit.”
“It was in the late 90s during a farmers’ rights issue, I met him and explained the matter, he immediately responded by saying we(Singh) would break the locks of the grain godowns if farmers grain is being kept from them,” Shiva remembers fondly. But she is not the brown knight of our story.
It is in fact Bhure Lal, who spent over two decades in contact with Singh, first in as the District Magistrate of Allahabad in the 1977 elections and later in the finance ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office.
Talking about VP Singh, Bhure Lal remembers the Bofor scandal which brought Singh to the national forefront. “Bofor scandal was not just Rs 67 crores but much more, in fact that particular Swiss bank account had money from other deals too, VP Singh took a very bold step and exposed for the first time, massive corruption in defence deals, it was not a political stunt but the righteous thing to do,” Lal narrated sitting at his Habitat Centre office.
“Even in his tussle it was never personal. He was respectful and civil towards the Gandhi family, never naming Rajiv in any of his speeches,” Bhure Lal said.
VP Singh was a secular and honest man, for whom social justice was everything. He sacrificed everything in its pursuit. Bhure Lal was the brown knight who worked deeply with Singh. After hours of talking, Singh’s brown knight said, “Raja was a different human being, unlike any you see today. He had seen it all, and yet decided to fight the just fight. Mandal Commission led to the downfall, but he happily sacrificed his office for the people.”
Stories are too many and events countless through which one message stands out. VP Singh was truly a Gandhian rebel who changed Indian politics forever, because of his commitment to social justice and ethos of India. He saw none above it.
Singh, the last Raja of Manda, was not just a member of the 1% but was of the elite class of 0.0001%, and he choose to rebel against them, expose them and suffer eternal damnation as a consequence. His is a Promethean tragedy, who stole fire for the Human and was punished for eternity. VP Singh is that person who stole political power from the upper caste Hindus and gave it to the depressed classes. Whether the OBCs revered him or not, it didn’t matter, he did the right thing for it was his moral imperative.
Well the journey is never complete, but VP Singh remains a force of justice and hope that continues to give courage not only me, but thousands on the righteous path faced with trepidation, slander, and violence. So why is he so hated? Because VP Singh was a rebel who was successful, and engraved the defeat of the 1% upper caste Hindus in the history of India. He opened the doors of education and power to political minorities. An icon for honesty and truth and I feel his relevance in Kaliyug is only beginning grow.
(Indra Shekhar Singh, is the grandson of VP Singh and writes on agriculture, environment and culture. This article was published earlier in hecitizen.in).