Posted by Namita Bhandare:
Former Prime Minister V.P. Singh, who formed a non-Congress government at the Centre that dethroned Rajiv Gandhi in the 1989 general elections, died in Delhi on Thursday after a prolonged illness.
Singh was Uttar Pradesh chief minister during Mrs Indira Gandhi’s tenure. He resigned, owning ‘moral responsibility’ after a series of dacoit attacks (including one that claimed the life of his brother).
Singh was rehabilitated into the political mainstream by Rajiv Gandhi who made him his finance minister; a man who was widely known as the Mr Clean of Indian politics, vowing to cleanse the system of corruption. He ordered a series of raids to look into the financial affairs of such heavyweight businessmen as Dhirubhai Ambani. But when it was revealed that Singh’s investigators had hired — without Cabinet authorisation — the services of an American investigative agency called Fairfax to look into the affairs of Ambani, things began to unravel.
Towards the end of 1986, two letters allegedly written by the head of Fairfax to Singh’s investigating officers surfaced. They gave the impression that the agency was not only investigating Ambani but also Amitabh Bachchan (then Rajiv Gandhi’s closest friend) and even, worse, Sonia Gandhi. Singh said the letters were forgeries, but the damage was done and the relationship of trust he seemed to share with Rajiv Gandhi had been breached. Singh was transferred out of the finance ministry into the defence ministry where, of course, another hot potato awaited him in the form of what would eventually come to be known as Bofors.
The rest as they say is history. Singh marched out of the Congress and into the waiting arms of the Jan Morcha (where Rajiv Gandhi’s now estranged cousin, Arun Nehru awaited him). Amitabh Bachchan resigned from Parliament — and Singh easily won the byelection for Allahabad caused by Bachchan’s resignation. Giani Zail Singh, then the Indian president, joined hands with Rajiv’s worst critics (The Indian Express, Nusli Wadia and Ramnath Goenka). Rajiv himself lost the huge mandate he had won in the 1984 general election (which he won largely on a sympathy vote created by the assassination of his mother). He lost the 1989 general election as Bofors became synonymous with corruption (though to this day there is not a shred of evidence linking Rajiv Gandhi or his family to any sort of illegal kickbacks by A.B. Bofors).
As the head of the Janata Dal which won 141 seats, V.P. Singh became prime minister with the support of both the BJP and the Left. But this government was doomed to self-destroy, which it did through a series of crises, including Kashmir where militants kidnapped the daughter of Singh’s home minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed (the government agreed to swap militants for her release, sowing the seeds of insurgency which persist to this day).
In the end, the man was known as Mr Clean lost the sympathy of India’s middle classes with his decision to push ahead with the Mandal Commission (increasing caste-based reservations in educational institutions). A horrified nation watched as angry, protesting students began committing suicide by immolating themselves to protest against Mandal. It is perhaps Singh’s only legacy to continue to have ramifications and implications to this day.
By the time, the Congress returned to power under Narasimha Rao, following the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, it was all over for V.P. Singh and politically at least he had become yesterday’s man as a new set of power brokers and career politicians took over in Delhi (though he would resurface from time to time from his hospital bed). In 1991 he was diagnosed with blood cancer, and V.P. Singh, once the most powerful man in India, slowly withdrew into his private world, writing poetry and painting. Here’s a sample:
Every time I wake up
It is night.
The world is just beyond
My hospital window
My only company
A distant window light.
That goes off.
First details go
Finally even form
All that is left is a blank
In the fog of age.
With only my echo to tell me
How far away I am.
All have fallen asleep
None to tell me
‘Go to sleep.’
For more obituaries and tributes click here, here and here.