Vishwanath Pratap Singh (born 25 June 1931) was the tenth Prime Minister of the Republic of India.
Early Career and Chief Minister
Entering local politics in Allahabad in the Nehru era, V.P. Singh soon made a name for himself in the state Congress Party for his unfailing rectitude, a reputation that he would carry with him throughout his career.
He was handpicked by Indira Gandhi to serve as the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh in 1980, when the Congress came back to power after the Janata interregnum. As CM, he cracked down hard on the dacoity, or banditry, problem, that was particularly severe in the rural districts of the south-west. He received much favourable national publicity when he offered to resign following a self-professed failure to stamp out the problem, and again when he personally oversaw the surrender of some of the most feared dacoits of the area in 1983.
Called to the Centre following Rajiv Gandhi‘s massive mandate in the 1984 General elections, he was appointed to the crucial post of Finance Minister, where he oversaw the gradual relaxation of the license Raj that Rajiv had in mind. He also gave extra power to the Enforcement Directorate of the Finance Ministry, which is the wing of the ministry charged with tracking down tax evaders. Following a number of high-profile raids on suspected evaders – including Dhirubhai Ambani – Rajiv was forced to sack him as Finance Minister, possibly because many of the raids were conducted on industrialists who had supported the Congress financially in the past. However, Singh’s popularity was at such a pitch now that only a sideways move was possible, to the Defence Ministry.
Once ensconced in North Block, Singh began to investigate the notoriously murky world of defence procurement. After a while, word began to spread that Singh possessed information about the Bofors defence deal that could damage the Prime Minister’s reputation. Before he could act on it, he was dismissed from the Cabinet and, in response, resigned his memberships in the Congress Party and the Lok Sabha.
Together with associates Arun Nehru and Arif Mohammed Khan, Singh floated an opposition party named the Jan Morcha. He was re-elected to Lok Sabha in a bye-election from Allahabad defeating Anil Shastri. On 11 October 1988, the birthday of the original Janata coalition’s spiritual leader Jayaprakash Narayan, the Janata Dal was formed by merger of Jan Morcha, Janata Party, Lok Dal and Congress (S), in order to bring together all the centrist parties opposed to the Rajiv Gandhi government.
The Janata Dal fought the elections in 1989 after coming to an agreement with the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party and the Communist Left Front that served to unify the anti-Congress vote under the banner of a grouping called the National Front. The three Opposition groupings earned a simple majority in the Lok Sabha and decided to form a government. The Communists and the BJP refused to serve in the government, preferring to support it from outside.
In a dramatic meeting in the Central Hall of Parliament on the 1st of December, V.P Singh proposed the name of Devi Lal as Prime Minister, in spite of the fact that he himself had been clearly projected by the anti-Congress forces as the ‘clean’ alternative to Rajiv and their Prime Ministerial candidate. Devi Lal, a Jat leader from Haryana stood up and refused the nomination, and said that he would prefer to be an ‘elder uncle’ to the Government, and that Singh should be PM. This last part came as a clear surprise to Chandra Shekhar, the former head of the erstwhile Janata Party, and Singh’s greatest rival within the Janata Dal. Shekhar, who had clearly expected that an agreement had been forged with Lal as the consensus candidate, stormed out of the meeting and refused to serve in the Cabinet.
Singh held office for slightly less than a year, from December 2, 1989 – November 10, 1990.
He faced his first crisis within few days of taking office: terrorists kidnapped the daughter of his Home Minister, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed (Ex Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir). His government caved into the demand for releasing militants in exchange; partly to end the storm of criticism that followed, he shortly thereafter appointed Jagmohan, a controversial former bureaucrat, as Governor of Jammu and Kashmir, on the insistence of the BJP, who were concerned that an insufficiently hard line was being taken with the separatist element in the state. Jagmohan subsequently inflamed opinion in the Valley when he ordered troops to fire on the funeral procession of the unofficial head of Kashmiri Islam, the Mirwaiz, and shortly thereafter the Kashmir insurgency began in earnest. In contrast, in Punjab, Singh replaced the hardline Siddhartha Shankar Ray as Governor with another former bureaucrat, Nirmal Kumar Mukarji, who moved forward on a timetable for fresh elections. Singh himself made a much-publicised visit to the Golden Temple to ask forgiveness for Operation Bluestar and the combination of events caused the long rebellion in Punjab to die down markedly in a few months. V.P. Singh withdrew the IPKF from Sri Lanka after he saw that Rajiv Gandhi‘s Sri Lanka policy was a miserable failure having cost over 1000 Indian soldiers’ lives, over 5000 Sri Lankan Tamil lives and cost over 2000 crores; and the Sri Lankan leader Premadasa wanted the IPKF to leave in March 1990.
Singh himself wished to move forward nationally on social justice-related issues, which would in addition consolidate the caste coalition that supported the Janata Dal in North India, and accordingly decided to implement the recommendations of the Mandal Commission which suggested that a fixed quota of all jobs in the public sector be reserved for members of the historically disadvantaged so-called Other Backward Classes. (Generally abbreviated OBCs, these were Hindu castes, and certain non-Hindu caste-like communities, which, though not untouchable, had been socially and educationally backward). This decision led to widespread protests among the youth in urban areas in North India.
Singh decided against contesting the new elections and retired from active politics. He spent the next few years touring the country speaking about matters related to issues of social justice, and painting. In the Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral governments of the late 1990s, Singh acted as a sort of elder statesman and advisor for the successors to the National Front coalition. He was diagnosed with cancer in 1998 and ceased his public appearances.
When his cancer went into remission in 2003, he once again became a visible figure, especially in the many groupings that had inherited the space once occupied by his Janata Dal. Ironically, his caste-based social justice policies had caused the rise of parties like the Bahujan Samaj Party that were formed around caste identities; his own brand of populist socialism was thus squeezed out of the electoral marketplace. To remedy this, he re-formed the Jan Morcha in 2005, and began the slow process of aggregation of smaller parties in the North with a view to contesting the Uttar Pradesh vidhan Sabha elections scheduled for 2007.