Sunday, November 30, 2008

V.P.Singh -- Feet of Clay (1931 - 2008)

Vishwanath Pratap Singh (25 June 1931 - 27 November 2008), V.P.Singh, could not have chosen a worse moment to pass into oblivion. He died as a nation watched, benumbed, the unfolding terror drama in Mumbai, his death was practically unsung and unnoticed barring the unavoidable mention in a 1 column obituary and some belated editorials.

V.P.Singh had a reputation for unassailable integrity that Rajiv Gandhi, now middle-class hero and press darling christened 'Mr Clean', inducted him as Finance ministry. The budgets drawn by V.P.Singh were hailed the best after C.D.Deshmukh, the license-permit raj was dismantled block by block. However it was his "raid-raj" that catapulted him to fame or notoriety depending on how libertarian you are. Those were heady days of scandal. The irascible editor of Indian Express, Ram Nath Goenka, along with his crusading editor Arun Shourie and accountant Gurumurthy, formed a troika of tormentors of India's most powerful businessman Dhirubhai Ambani. Into this rich cast of backdrop V.P.Singh walked tall and fearless throwing the book at every erring businessman, finally shocking everyone by arresting much respected octogenarian S.L.Kirloskar. In a country where the law is structured in such a way that no one can be completely law abiding this was seen as sheer arrogance. Kirloskar's business empire employed thousands, created a town and finally but for India's laws would have been India's own Toyota (India:Midnight to millenium , Shashi Tharoor).

At a convenient moment Singh was transferred to the defence ministry. Indian army headed by much acclaimed Gen K.Sunderji had organised the then largest defence exercise "Operation Brasstacks", Pakistan was rattled and a game of brinkmanship ensued. In a nation of illiterates the sory of corruption, long accepted as the norm, broke to the front pages of newspapers about buying a cannon for the army. Rajiv, now erstwhile Mr Clean indulged in chicanery and political skullduggery that alienated just about everyone. Raids on Indian express, leaked reports of diaries of arms dealers, not a day went without something sensational. Rajiv finally dismissed Singh.

Discarded Singh became the reluctant messiah, the new Mr Clean. A by-election in Allahabad became a national event. Allahabad, ancestral town of Nehru's, carried a emotional quotient. Rajiv went all out, he had money, the government was his, no trick was too low to indulge. Arun Goyal, who portrayed Rama in Ramayan, appeared in full costume at Congress rallies and assured everyone of Rama's blessings if they voted for Congress candidate, Anil Shastri, son of Lal Bahadur Shastri who in turn was Singh's mentor. Not even the Bard could have written up such a political drama with Oedipal overtones. Singh, penniless, campaigned on a motorcycle and trounced Anil Shastri with over a lakh of votes difference. The political re-alignment that changed India forever began that night.

Singh and an unlikely motley crew of politicians with not much in common went from one large alliance after another, Jan Morcha, Janata Dal and finally "National Front" in 1988. The country was seething with dissatisfaction at Rajiv. Drama, again, was not in short supply. Jethmalani's "10 questions a day", nationwide raid on Indian Express, expose after expose in The Hindu on Bofors, forgeries done to discredit V.P.Singh were exposed, en-masse resignations from Lok Sabha (idea of filmstar turned politician N.T.RamaRao), Opinion polls made psephology the new in-thing in extremely disorganised Indian journalism, Arun Shourie and his ilk became household names, India was cauldron to put it mildly.

The nation faced an election. V.P.Singh was now the media darling, the new Mr.Clean, the new middle-class hero. There he was, an ill financed politician tearing down India's most venerated political clan traveling on the pillion of a motorcycle holding panchayat style meetings. He would ask the crowd "bekari me unka license" (Rajiv's license on unemployment referring to rising unemployment and a clever pun on Indira's slogan 'bekari hatao' - Unemployment get out). The crowd roared back lustily "radd radd" (cancelled), a beaming V.P.Singh would thank "Faisala ho gaya" (Judgment given) and move on. India Today predicted that Rajiv would get 195 MP's compared to 450+ MP's in 1984. The prediction was on target. Prannoy Roy and his stylish crew brought live telecast of election to Indian drawing rooms.

The nation was in disarray, hung parliament became a new word to learn. Rajiv, in a moment of grace, chose to sit in the opposition benches though he could have technically staked claim to form government as the single largest party. V.P.Singh became the PM with an extremely dramatic background leading to his nomination. A little known rustic from Haryana, Devi Lal, was named Deputy Prime Minister. Now it was V.P.Singh's turn to show his feet of clay.

The government lurched from one crisis to another, mostly courtesy Devi Lal and his son Om Prakash Chautala. The Meham by election, "Mayhem in Meham", was sheer embarassment, Chautala though assured of victory went all out to make it impressive and indulged in booth capturing on an unprecedented scale. V.P.Singh went on live TV to hold a press conference (the first and last by an Indian PM as far as I know), he was grilled by 20-something reporters. Finally after having had enough Devi Lal was dismissed. He responded by holding a rally in Delhi with thousands carted in from Haryana. L.K.Advani meanwhile was doing his best to tear asunder the country with his rath yatra (he now says it was Pramod Mahajan's idea). After much dithering Singh had Advani arrested. Advani withdrew his support to Singh's government.

In a final act of desperation that came to characterise his tenure Singh announced the implementation of "Mandal" report giving 27% of seats in all educational instituitions to so called "OBC's" (other Backward classes). OBC's, naturally hailed him as messiah. Violent protests erupted across the country, spearheaded by SC/ST's who saw these OBC (which had rich Thakur's, Yadav's, Patels etc) as oppressors. True to form who is "backward" or how is "backwardness" defined were all left conveniently ambiguous. Anybody born into the right caste could now claim to be backward not withstanding their political clout (Yadavs and Thakurs) or individual economic well being. CHildren of chief ministers and ministers were "backward".

Singh had no way of surviving politically yet he indulged in rank oppurtunism cloaking himself in the mantle of "social justice". He was voted out of power. In whatever decency that was left in him he made a mark by putting the no-confidence motion to vote on the floor of the parliament refusing a horse trade.

Out of power, Singh later exulted when AIIMS had its first candidate under Mandal. By now he was diagnosed with Leukemia and was being treated in Memorial Sloan Kettering, USA while less fortunate Indians got treated by Mandal doctors. He finally died at Apollo, a plush private hospital, some Social Justice that was.

Obituary in Business Standard

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