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).
War or peace?
By Dr Akmal Hussain
Foreign Minister Shah Mahmud Qureshi on Sunday, April 7, in a press briefing in Multan, announced that the government had “reliable” information that India was planning another attack on Pakistan. He revealed that during a meeting of the Indian Cabinet Committee on Security, the three service chiefs had indicated that they were ready with plans of multiple strikes against Pakistan across a wide front and were awaiting a “political nod”, which was duly given by PM Modi during the meeting.
After the political boomerang of the failed Balakot strike, simple statistical theory would suggest to the military mind that the larger the number of strikes next time the higher the probability of at least one succeeding. The chances of partial success would increase if the air attack is across a wide front: the defending air force would have to spread itself thin and so the number of intercepting aircraft that could be fielded against any one group of attackers would be reduced.
Such a military adventure by India would not simply be a repeat strike after Balakot. It would be a precipitous escalation, fraught with the risk of full-scale conventional war that could quickly lead to a catastrophic nuclear exchange. When India suffered a setback in the Balakot engagement, they reportedly readied themselves for a missile strike against three Pakistani cities on the night of February 27.
There is no technology in existence that can determine whether or not incoming missiles have a nuclear payload. So Pakistan’s declaration that they would launch triple the number of missiles in retaliation, as soon as Indian missiles left their launch pads, carried the grim possibility of a nuclear war in the Subcontinent. If we had come so close to Armageddon soon after even a single abortive strike, imagine how much greater would be the risk of escalation to the nuclear level during a full-scale conventional war.
At present, and in the foreseeable future, two aspects of the structure of the India-Pakistan relationship create a hair trigger that can quickly and repeatedly bring the two countries to flashpoint. First, a popular freedom movement in Kashmir that, despite their protracted coercion, Indian security forces have been unable to suppress. It has instead produced a pantheon of martyrs and a new generation of militant youths willing to sacrifice themselves for freedom. Under these circumstances the internal dynamics of the Kashmiri movement can generate acts of violent rebellion against Indian troops at any time.
Second, on the other side of the border for many years non-state groups of militant extremists who have off and on received patronage continue to exist. The toxic mix of these two elements creates an environment in which spectacular acts of violence by Kashmiri youth could be blamed on “Pakistan-based terrorists” by India. This could intensify tensions, precipitating another military conflict. The past cannot be taken as a guide to say how it will end, whether in peace or nuclear war.
Given the firepower of modern conventional weaponry, significant loss of territory can occur during the initial onslaught that could escalate to the use of battlefield nuclear weapons. Once nuclear weapons are used on enemy troops, all-out nuclear war would follow. The recent history of India-Pakistan military conflict however has shown that even before a full-scale conventional war, a limited, localised battle can bring the two sides to the nuclear precipice.
For example, during the Kargil conflict in 1999 when the then prime minister Nawaz Sharif flew to Washington to ask the then US president Clinton to help end the conflict, he was shown satellite pictures of nuclear weapons being loaded onto F16s as evidence for a shocked PM of how close the two countries were to a nuclear war. Then again during the first two days of the February 2019 conflict involving limited Air Force engagements, nuclear missiles were reportedly readied on the night of February 27 for use by both sides.
So far these confrontations have induced timely intercession by the international community and peoples of the Subcontinent have survived by the skin of their teeth. But what a future confrontation will bring, whether we live or die in a nuclear war is inherently uncertain. Its probability cannot be estimated.
Some take comfort in the fact that seven confrontations in the past did not result in full-scale war as international pressure to defuse tensions worked. However, this 100 percent success in preventing war in the past cannot be used as a basis for saying it will not occur the next time around. This is because in society as much as in the relationship between states the averages of the past do not necessarily hold into the future. This is unlike natural phenomena where averages of the past as expressed in natural laws do hold into the future.
For example, take the law of gravity: if you had dropped an object and it fell to the ground yesterday, there is a high probability that it would fall again if you dropped it tomorrow. But in society, probability estimates which are essentially based on projecting the past into the future are not possible in principle. The pattern of social phenomena and human behaviour observed in the past can in the future be shattered by unique events or a combination of unique events.
As the preceding discussion argues, even a limited conventional conflict following a terrorist incident can quickly escalate to the nuclear threshold. It is vital, therefore, for the two countries supported by the world community to address the explosive structure of a situation that leads to repeated military confrontation.
Millions of citizens in both countries are mired in poverty, illiteracy and disease. Thousands of children are dying at birth every day; of those who survive birth, thousands die before they are five years old. Of the children who live beyond five years, millions are suffering from malnutrition, their bodies stunted, their brains dulled. Millions of children roam the streets and alleys, deprived of quality education, abandoned by society and state and living without hope. Instead of halting this massacre of innocents together, the two states are marching in lockstep to a nuclear catastrophe.
It is time for the leaderships of both India and Pakistan to reflect on the irrationality and inhumanity of using proxy wars or ‘surgical strikes’ as a means of achieving national security. The power of a nation lies not in following the course of mutual annihilation but pursuing the path of peace for the welfare of its citizens. The leaderships of the two countries should dip their cupped hands into their shared civilisational well-springs. Imbibe the sense of compassion and human solidarity to care for our children rather than killing them.
Rubbing salt on the wounds:
By Aleem Faizee
Another assault on the people of Malegaon – this is how a shopkeeper in Malegaon reacted to the news of the BJP fielding Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur from Bhopal against Congress’ Digvijaya Singh in this Lok Sabha election.
It’s like rubbing salt on our wounds, another Malegaon resident said.
For the people in Malegaon, the announcement of Pragya Thakur’s candidature has brought back the ghastly memories of 29 September 2008, when the city was rocked by a bomb blast. Thakur is facing trial in the case.
On the night of the blast, it was about 9.40 pm and people were about to finish Salaat-ut-Taraweeh – special night prayers offered during the month of Ramadan – when they heard a loud sound of explosion. At first, they thought it could be a cylinder blast accident. But it soon emerged that it was a bomb blast.
The blast spot was just metres away from the Ladies Fashion Market at Anjuman Chowk where a huge crowd of women and children were busy shopping for Eid al Fitr. There was chaos near Bhikku Chowk – the site of the blast. People carried the bleeding victims, more than a hundred, to hospitals using whatever means they could find.
The blast claimed six lives. One of them was 5-year-old Farheen Shaikh who was out to buy some snacks and was on her way back home to have Ramadan dinner with her grandmother.
Among the injured was Abdullah Jamaluddin Ansari of Shakeel Transport. The 75-year-old man, during initial investigation, had said he had noticed the LML Freedom motorcycle, which was later traced to Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur and led to her arrest, parked in front of his office since afternoon that day. He had also informed the police chowki, a stone’s throw away from the blast site, but claimed that no action was taken.
Javed Ansari, owner of a photocopier shop, was also injured in the Malegaon blast. It took him over three years to recover and resume work.
But for these blast victims, life has never been the same since that September night.
While Javed Ansari and the family of Farheen Shaikh left the locality after the blast, Shakeel Transport’s Abdullah Ansari died last year. Following the blast, Ansari often looked at the wall clock in his shop, which had stopped working at 9.37 pm – the time of the blast – and waited for justice.
One doesn’t know how he would have reacted to the news of Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur joining the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and contesting the Lok Sabha election.
By fielding Sadhvi Pragya, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wants people to believe that she and other accused arrested in various blast cases were ‘framed in fabricated cases’ and that ‘saffron terror’ is a myth.
But while doing so the, BJP has undermined the fact that Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur still remains a key accused in the 2008 Malegaon blast case. As per court papers, the first evidence that led to her arrest was the LML Freedom motorcycle that was registered in her name and was used to plant the bomb. There are also some audio tapes and visuals too. Based on these evidences, the Bombay trial court judge had observed that there was enough ground to establish Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur’s role in the blast.
Ironically, while nominating Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur as the party candidate, the BJP did not think about the kind of message this would send to all the world leaders with whom Narendra Modi has often taken up the issue of terrorism.
The people of Malegaon, who had been hearing about the pressure on some officers and public prosecutor Rohini Salian ‘to go soft’ in the case, have almost lost all hope of getting justice. Wife of Mumbai ATS chief Hemant Karkare – the officer who initially investigated the case – had turned down then-Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi’s monetary compensation after 26/11 attacks.
Therefore, the BJP’s decision to field Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur in this election is neither shocking nor surprising for most people in Malegaon. But it is painful, especially for the blast victims and their families.
Majboot Sarkars Overrated?
Prior to the 1990s, coalition governments in Indian politics were considered to be an aberration and not particularly desirable. The lack of coalitions in India was clearly tied to the one-party preponderance of the Congress. So, when the party sensed defeat in the 1989 Lok Sabha election, it tried to remind voters of how shambolic the 1977 Janata government had been.
The VP Singh-led National Front government formed in 1989 was perhaps the strangest political entity that people had witnessed in Indian politics. Propped up by the Left parties on one side, and the right-wing BJP that provided support with its 86 seats on the other – the government proved to be short lived.
The grand old party then supported the Chandrashekhar Singh government for four months, after which it decided to withdraw support and elections in 1991 brought back a Congress-led coalition government in the country. With that, the era of coalition politics was well and truly upon us.
Coalition governments were the new normal in Indian politics and would continue to be so until 2014, when the Narendra Modi-led government became the first in three decades since 1984, to win a clear majority.
In 1996, there was a short-lived Vajpayee-led BJP government for 13 days, followed by the rather soporific one led by HD Deve Gowda that lasted until 1997. After that, IK Gujral led the United Front coalition government that lasted from April 1997 to March 1998.
By then, the political scenario of the country was beginning to look a bit like a game of musical chairs. However, things stabilised with Atal Bihari Vajpayee returning in 1998, hanging on for a year and then getting re-elected in 1999 to finally last a whole term.
After that, with a full decade of the Congress led United Progressive Alliance leading the way, Indian politics developed a version of the two party system, rather, a two coalition system. Numerous political parties have coalesced around BJP and the Congress in the form of the National Democratic Alliance and the United Progressive Alliance, respectively.
Congress governments in coalition have brought about some of the most momentous and far-reaching changes. It was the Narasimha Rao-led government that introduced the economic reforms, which for better or worse, changed the country tremendously.
One simple indicator of the worth of coalitions is the fact that many thought that the UPA-I government was too hobbled by the presence of the Left, as it was a hindrance to the economic reforms associated with Congress governments since 1991.
The withdrawal of Left support, followed by the more emphatic victory that led to UPA-II in 2009, was supposed to bring in a more decisive and unfettered government. Yet, it is the UPA-I government that is remembered for the succession of rights-based legislation it introduced, while UPA II has come to be associated with crony capitalism.
Similarly, the NDA-I government of Vajpayee, with all of its coalition pulls and pressures ensured two things. First, the core and often contentious BJP issues, which are Article 370, Babri Masjid and Uniform Civil Code, were relegated to the back-burner.
Second, the Vajpayee-led BJP government could well and truly be said to have a fringe and a centre, with the fringe remaining where any fringe should belong.
However, the ruling BJP government of the day has once again brought the core contentious issues to the forefront. It has also ensured that the fringe encompasses the party uniformly, leaving no hint of nuance or differentiation.
What this suggests is that weaker coalitions may actually perform better. More importantly, coalitions are able to more naturally weave in the vital regional parties that act as breakwaters in the path of potentially elective despotism.
Are majority governments over-rated?
What have supposedly strong and stable majority governments been able to do? Have they taken decisive measures or brought about ‘big-ticket economic reforms’, untroubled by the petty pulls of coalition partners?
Take the 1984 Rajiv Gandhi government with its mammoth majority of above 400 hundred seats. In less than two years, it started playing communally divisive politics around the Babri Masjid and Shah Bano issues.
The Congress thought it was being cleverly even handed by dealing out both majority and minority communal cards. The drift in the Rajiv Gandhi government could be sensed right in the middle of its term when it lost badly in the Haryana assembly elections of 1987. It lost the hugely symbolic Allahabad by-election in 1988 to V.P. Singh, and the rest we are prone to saying, is history.
The question then is this: Could the supposed strength and stability provided by majority governments be overrated? What has the Modi government achieved on the back of its huge mandate? Has it squandered that majority much like the Rajiv Gandhi led government of 1984-89? Can Modi return to power? This has been a bit of a see-saw question.
When Modi’s government came to power with a huge landslide, or ‘tsunami’ if you will, conventional wisdom was that he was here to stay for at least two terms. The UP assembly elections in 2017 seemed to confirm this. After that, it has been more of a will he/won’t he guessing game. The jury is well and truly out on this one.
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