27th November 2008: V.P. Singh, the Seventh Prime Minister of India, passed away

India’s seventh prime minister, Vishwanath Pratap Singh, who championed the cause of backward castes, was born in a landlord’s family on June 25, 1931, in Allahabad (now in Uttar Pradesh). He died on November 27, 2008, after suffering from multiple ailments for several years.

In 1936, he was adopted by Raja Bahadur Ram Gopal Singh of Manda; after Ram Gopal’s death, V.P. Singh effectively became the Raja Bahadur of Manda. He studied at Dehradun’s Colonel Brown Cambridge School. Politically inclined from a young age, he held senior posts in student unions at Varanasi and Allahabad. He studied law at Udai Pratap College in Varanasi, and physics at Pune’s Fergusson College. He considered becoming a nuclear scientist at one stage, but the pull of politics was stronger.

In 1969 he was elected to the Uttar Pradesh legislative assembly. There was no looking back after that. In 1971 he was elected to the Lok Sabha. In 1974, he became the deputy minister of commerce in the Indira Gandhi government. He served as minister of state for commerce between 1974 and 1976.

With the Congress coming back to power in 1980, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi made Singh the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. He offered to resign two years later after publically admitting that he could not fully solve the problem of banditry that was endemic to some regions of the state.

After Rajiv Gandhi became prime minister in 1984, V.P. Singh was made the union finance minister. V.P. Singh’s image was that of an honest man, and he took measures to tackle gold smuggling and crack down on tax evaders. “He was the man chosen by Rajiv Gandhi to start hacking away at the chains that had bound the Indian economy for several decades,” Mint wrote in a profile on V.P. Singh following his death. “He was the original reformer. Business houses will also remember the raids he ordered against tax offenders, which were not as unjustified as many believe.”

In a controversial move, he was shifted to the defence ministry. As defence minister, V.P. Singh took a hard look at shady deals in defence procurement, including the Bofors deal. Eventually, he was dismissed from the Cabinet, and he, in turn, resigned both from the Congress and the Lok Sabha.

Singh formed a new political outfit called the Jan Morcha and was re-elected to the Lok Sabha after winning the by-poll from Allahabad.

In October 1988, the Jan Morcha merged with other anti-Congress parties, the Janata Party, Lok Dal and Congress (S), to form the Janata Dal, with V.P. Singh as its president. The Janata Dal joined hands with regional players such as the DMK to form the National Front.

In the 1989 Lok Sabha elections the National Front, with electoral support from the BJP and Left parties, won a majority and formed the government, with the Left and the BJP providing outside support.

Singh became prime minister on December 2, 1989, and Devil Lal his deputy.

Though Singh did not complete even a year in office, it was a tumultuous time for India — Kashmir exploded in violence and the Mandal and Mandir movements caused immense social upheaval.  Meanwhile, even as regional parties grew more powerful in several parts of the country, the right-wing BJP consolidated its position.

V.P. Singh is perhaps best remembered for stirring the caste cauldron by implementing the recommendations of the Mandal Commission and reserving jobs for backward castes. There were violent demonstrations against the move, with many students setting themselves ablaze in protest. But at the same time he “irreversibly changed the course of Indian politics, bringing to the fore the power of backwards and Dalits in electoral politics”, as a news report put it after his death.

With the Ram Janmabhoomi movement gathering steam and L.K. Advani taking out a rath yatra in its support, Singh intervened by arresting the BJP leader before he could reach Ayodhya. The kar sevaks were not allowed to build a temple on the disputed site. Consequently, the BJP stopped giving outside support to the National Front, leading to the fall of the V.P. Singh government.

Singh could never make an effective comeback to the centrestage of Indian politics. He also faced long and debilitating battles on the health front, and had to fight cancer and kidney ailments. “What I had planned has gone awry. What do you do? I think acceptance is best. I know the kidney has failed. There’s nothing to do, nothing I can do or anyone can do,” he told India Today magazine in a poignant interview in 1997, while undergoing treatment in London. “So accept it. You compromise like I have to do. You prepare yourself. If you can’t extend the days of your life, then enhance its quality. At this stage, why should I miss life? I’ve lived it all…There are very few years and whatever years I have, why should I lose them wandering about?”

The ‘Raja of Manda’ died at Delhi’s Apollo Hospital on November 27, 2008. Writing in The Guardian, Mark Tully described V.P. Singh as “an unusual Indian politician, renowned for his obsession with honesty and his willingness to sacrifice office”. Tully added, “He was shy, with a slightly nervous laugh, but to those who knew him he fully justified his public image of honesty, being open to discussion of any aspect of his career and willing to accept criticism.”

Also on this day:

1888 — Ganesh Mavalankar, Speaker of Constituent Assembly and first Speaker of Lok Sabha, was born

1907 — Harivansh Rai Bachchan, Hindi poet, was born  

1952 — Bappi Lahiri, music director in Indian film industry, was born  

1986 — Suresh Raina, Indian cricketer, was born  

2011— Ustad Sultan Khan, sarangi player and vocalist, passed away

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