Vishwanath Pratap Singh (25 June 1931 27 November 2008), was an Indian politician and government official, the 7th Prime Minister of India from 1989 to 1990. Singh is known for trying to improve the lot of India’s lower castes as a Prime Minister.
Singh became a Member of the Legislative Assembly of Uttar Pradesh in 1969 as a member of the Congress Party. He got elected to the Lok Sabha in 1971 and was appointed a Deputy Minister of Commerce by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1974. He served as the Minister of Commerce in 1976-77.
He was appointed by Indira Gandhi as the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh in 1980, when Gandhi was re-elected after the Janata interlude. As Chief Minister (1980-82), he cracked down hard on dacoitry, a problem that was particularly severe in the rural districts of the south-west Uttar Pradesh. He received much favorable 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.
He resumed his post as Minister of Commerce in 1983. Singh was responsible for managing the coalition of the Left and BJP against Rajiv Gandhi to dethrone him in the 1989 elections. He is remembered for the important role that he played in 1989 that changed the course of Indian politics by becoming the Prime Minister of India and making the backwards and Dalits eligible for electoral politics. Unlike other Prime Ministers who came after him and made compromises, Singh acted boldly by issuing an arrest warrant against L. K. Advani midway through the Rath Yatra of Bharatiya Janata Party. He took a firm position regarding issues of corruption and anything damaging the secular fabric of the Indian state.
Minister for Finance (1984-87) and Defence (1987)
Called to New Delhi following Rajiv Gandhi‘s mandate in the 1984 general election, Singh was appointed to the post of Finance Minister in Tenth Cabinet of India, where he oversaw the gradual relaxation of the License Raj (governmental regulation) as Gandhi had in mind. During his term as Finance Minister, he oversaw the reduction of gold smuggling by reducing gold taxes and giving the police a portion of the confiscated gold. He also gave extraordinary powers to the Enforcement Directorate of the Finance Ministry, the wing of the ministry charged with tracking down tax evaders, then headed by Bhure Lal. Singhs efforts to reduce governmental regulation of business and to prosecute tax fraud attracted widespread praise.
Following a number of high-profile raids on suspected evaders including Dhirubhai Ambani and Amitabh Bachchan Gandhi 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 that only a sideways move seemed to have been possible, to the Defence Ministry (in January 1987).
Once ensconced in South 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 (the infamous arms-procurement fraud) that could damage Gandhi’s reputation. Before he could act on it, he was dismissed from the Cabinet and, in response, resigned his memberships in the Congress Party (Indira) and the Lok Sabha.
Formation of Janata Dal
Together with associates Arun Nehru and Arif Mohammad Khan, Singh floated an opposition party named Jan Morcha. He was re-elected to Lok Sabha in a tightly contested by-election from Allahabad, defeating Sunil Shastri. On 11 October 1988, the birthday of the original Janata coalition’s leader Jayaprakash Narayan, Singh founded the Janata Dal by the 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, and Singh was elected the President of the Janata Dal. An opposition coalition of the Janata Dal with regional parties including the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Telugu Desam Party, and Asom Gana Parishad, came into being, called the National Front, with V. P. Singh as convener, NT Rama Rao as President, and P Upendra as a General Secretary.
National Front coalition government
The National Front fought 1989 General Elections after coming to an electoral understanding with Bharatiya Janata Party and the Left parties (the two main oppositions) that served to unify the anti-Congress vote. The National Front, with its allies, earned a simple majority in the Lok Sabha and decided to form a government. The Bharatiya Janta Party under the leadeship of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani and the left parties such as the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India declined to serve in the government, preferring to support the government from outside.
In a meeting in the Central Hall of Parliament on December 1, 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 Gandhi and their Prime Ministerial candidate. Chaudhary 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 Prime Minister. 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, withdrew from the meeting and refused to serve in the Cabinet.
Singh was sworn in as Indias Prime Minister on 2 December 1989.
Prime Minister (1989-90)”]
Singh held office for slightly less than a year, from 2 December 1989 to 10 November 1990. After state legislative elections in March 1990, Singhs governing coalition achieved control of both houses of Indias parliament. During this time, Janata Dal came to power in five Indian states under Om Prakash Chautala (Banarsi Das Gupta, Hukam Singh), Chimanbhai Patel, Biju Patnaik, Laloo Prasad Yadav, and Mulayam Singh Yadav, and the National Front constituents in two more NT Rama Rao, and Prafulla Kumar Mahanta. The Janata Dal also shared power in Kerala under EK Nayanar and in Rajasthan under Bhairon Singh Shekhawat (supporting the Bharatiya Janata Party government from outside). Singh decided to end the Indian army’s unsuccessful operation in Sri Lanka which Rajiv Gandhi, his predecessor, had sent to combat the Tamil separatist movement.
V. P. Singh faced his first crisis within few days of taking office, when terrorists kidnapped the daughter of his Home Minister, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed (former Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir). His government agreed to the demand for releasing militants in exchange; partly to end the storm of criticism that followed, he shortly thereafter appointed Jagmohan Malhotra, a former bureaucrat, as Governor of Jammu and Kashmir, on the insistence of the Bharatiya Janata Party.
In Punjab, Singh replaced the hard-line 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 Blue Star and the combination of events caused the long rebellion in Punjab to die down markedly in a few months.
He also thwarted the efforts of Pakistan under Benazir Bhutto to start a border war with India.
Mandal Commission report
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 northern 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. This decision led to widespread protests among the upper caste youth in urban areas in northern India. OBC reservation (less creamy layer) was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2008.
Tussle with Reliance group
In 1990, the government-owned financial institutions like the Life Insurance Corporation of India and the General Insurance Corporation stonewalled attempts by the Reliance group to acquire managerial control over Larsen & Toubro. Sensing defeat, the Ambanis resigned from the board of the company. Dhirubhai, who had become Larsen & Toubro’s chairman in April 1989, had to quit his post to make way for D. N. Ghosh, former chairman of the State Bank of India.
Ram temple issue and the fall of the coalition
Meanwhile, the Bharatiya Janata Party was moving its own agenda forward. In particular, the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation, which served as a rallying cry for several radical Hindu organisations, took on new life. The party president, LK Advani, with Pramod Mahajan as aide, toured the northern states on a rath a bus converted to look like a mythical chariot with the intention of drumming up support. Before he could complete the tour by reaching the disputed site in Ayodhya, he was arrested on Singh’s orders at Samastipur on the charges of disturbing the peace and fomenting communal tension. The k?r-seva (demolition of the mosque and construction of the temple) proposed by Advani on 30 October 1990 was prevented by stationing troops at the site.
This led to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s suspension of support to the National Front government. VP Singh faced the vote of no confidence in the Lok Sabha saying that he occupied the high moral ground, as he stood for secularism, had saved the Babri Masjid at the cost of power and had upheld the fundamental principles which were challenged during the crises. “What kind of India do you want?” he asked of his opponents in Parliament, before losing the vote 142346; only a portion of the National Front remaining loyal to him (see below) and the left parties supported him in the vote.
Singh resigned on 7 November 1990.
The Chandra Shekhar government
Chandra Shekhar immediately seized the moment and left the Janata Dal with several of his own supporters (including Devi Lal, Janeshwar Mishra, HD Deve Gowda, Maneka Gandhi, Ashoke Kumar Sen, Subodh Kant Sahay, Om Prakash Chautala, Hukam Singh, Chimanbhai Patel, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Yashwant Sinha, VC Shukla, and Sanjay Singh) to form the Samajwadi Janata Party/Janata Dal (Socialist). Although Chandra Shekhar had a mere 64 MPs, Rajiv Gandhi the leader of the Opposition, agreed to support him on the floor of the House; so he won a confidence motion and was sworn in as Prime Minister. Eight Janata Dal MPs who voted for this motion were disqualified by the speaker Rabi Ray. He lasted only a few months before Gandhi withdrew support and fresh elections were called. He tried his best to get support till the last minute but failed.
United Front coalition and later years
VP Singh contested the new elections but his party was relegated to the opposition chiefly due to the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi (May 1991) during the election campaign, and he later retired from active politics. He spent the next few years touring the country speaking about matters related to issues of social justice and his artistic pursuits, chiefly painting.
In 1992, Singh was the first to propose the name of the future President KR Narayanan as a (eventually successful) candidate for Vice President. Later the same year in December, he led his followers to Ayodhya to oppose the karseva proposed by LK Advani, and was arrested before he could reach the site; the Masjid was demolished by the karsevaks a few days later.
In 1996, the Congress party lost the general elections and Singh was the natural choice of the winning United Front (Singh was one of the forces behind the broad United Front coalition) for the post of Prime Minister. But he declined the offer made to him by communist veteran Jyoti Basu, Bihar strongman Lalu Prasad Yadav and almost all leaders of the Janata family.
Singh was diagnosed with cancer in 1998 and ceased 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. He relaunched the Jan Morcha in 2006 with actor-turned-politician Raj Babbar as President. After Jan Morcha drew a blank in the 2007 UP elections, Raj Babbar joined the Congress, and Singh’s elder son Ajeya Singh (Ajeya Pratap Singh) took over the reins of the party in anticipation of the 2009 General elections. Ajeya Singh then contested as Jan Morcha candidate from Fatehpur, but lost to Rakesh Sachan of the Samajwadi Party. The Jan Morcha was renamed as the National Jan Morcha in June 2009. A month later, the Jan Morcha merged with the Indian National Congress.
Singh was placed under arrest in Ghaziabad as he and his supporters were proceeding towards a hauling where prohibitory orders under Section 144 had been imposed to join the farmers agitating against the acquisition of land at Dadri by the Anil Ambani-owned Reliance Industries and demanding adequate compensation. Later, Singh and CPI General Secretary AB Bardhan were again arrested on the UP border when they were proceeding to Dadri. However, Singh and Babbar were later able to evade the police, reaching Dadri on 18 August 2006, and ploughing the land in solidarity with the farmers.
Singh married Princess Sita Kumari, the daughter of the Raja of Deogarh-Madaria, Rajasthan, on 25 June 1955. It was an arranged marriage. He turned 24 on the day of the marriage, and she was 18. Kumari was a Sisodia Rajput descended from Rana Pratap of Udaipur. The couple had two sons, Ajeya Singh (born 1957), a chartered accountant in New York, and Abhai Singh (born 1958), a doctor at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi.
V. P. Singh died after a very long struggle with multiple myeloma (bone marrow cancer) and renal failure at Apollo Hospital in Delhi on 27 November 2008. He was cremated at Allahabad on the banks of the River Ganges on 29 November 2008, his son Ajeya Singh lighting the funeral pyre.
- Juliet Reynolds, an art critic and a close friend of Singh, made a short documentary on him, titled The Art of the Impossible (45 minutes long), and covers his political and artistic career.
- Suma Josson made another film on Singh titled One More Day to Live.
- GS Bhargava: Peristroika in India: VP Singh’s Prime Ministership, Gian Publishing House, New Delhi, 1990.
- Madan Gaur: VP Singh: Portrait of a Leader, Press and Publicity Syndicate of India, 1990.
- Seema Mustafa: The Lonely Prophet: VP Singh, a Political Biography, New Age international, 1995.
- Ram Bahadur Rai: Manjil se Jyada Safar (in Hindi), 2005.
Other books connected to V. P. Singh
- “The State As Charade: V. P. Singh, Chandra Shekhar and the Rest” by Arun Shourie, Publisher: South Asia Books
- IK Gujral: Matters of Discretion: An Autobiography, Hay House, India, 519 pages, Feb. 2011. ISBN 978-93-8048-080-0. Distributors: Penguin books, India.
- R Venkataraman: My Presidential Years, HarperCollins/Indus, 1995. ISBN 81-7223-202-0.
- P Upendra: Gatham Swagatham.