Departure of a reformer

CK Lal is a writer and columnist based in Kathmandu.

Bit by bit dreams of future
Have descended into the well of fog
Only rationalizations of physical scientists
Jabber of information technology
Stay perched on sad branches of trees.

– Nanda Chaturbedi in "Shayad"


For Homo sapiens in their prime, revolutions are sexy. When hormones are hyperactive and energy levels are high, everybody wants to have a go at changing the world. Insurgencies often seduce the best and brightest to test their strength. In the late-1960s, the world was considered ripe for rebellion, and students everywhere thought that political power was theirs for the taking. Those were the days when brilliant youngsters from the Presidency in Calcutta and St Stephens in Delhi marched to Naxalbari, chanting the mantra, "China's Chairman is our Chairman!" Once the war erupted on the eastern front and the Indian Army stormed Dhaka, daydreamers in jeans and kurtas went AWOL from the frontlines in West Bengal. They were later to be found scattered in academia from Bombay to Boston and Oxford to Oslo, in serious pursuit of subaltern studies, postcolonial history and postmodern literary theories.

Meanwhile, another set of radicals had begun to coalesce around born-again revolutionary Jayaprakash Narayan to wage war against the authoritarian ways of Indira Gandhi. It is easier to name the soldiers of JP's 'total revolution', since they have totally discarded the creed of social justice that propelled them to the pinnacles of political power. Who will now believe that Lalu Yadav and Nitish Kumar were once torchbearers of probity in public life? But that is the effect that unfinished revolutions often have on their children: tired soldiers tend to descend into the depths of decadence with the vengeance of apostates.

When everyone around him was busy chasing rainbows, Vishwanath Pratap Singh stayed loyal to Indira Gandhi, and faced the jibes and jeers of fellow rajas for worshipping a fake maharani. But it is difficult to understand the rebellion of V P Singh, the Raja of Manda, against Rajiv Gandhi in the late 1980s if one does not appreciate the torment that he must have gone through in attending to the whims of Sanjay Gandhi during the previous decade. He learned from the failed revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s that slow reforms were more suitable for introducing sweeping changes in the tradition-bound Indian society. He also observed that Indians ultimately loved those who renounced political power for principles. And he realised that the only way he could soar to the top was by pitting himself against the pragmatic politics of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. The Raja adroitly used lessons that he had learned in the Indian National Congress to undermine its base in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Mulayam Singh Yadav, Mayawati and Nitish Kumar may loath to admit it publicly, but they owe their place in politics to the man they loved to ridicule in his last days.

V P Singh caught the attention of the nation through his crusade against corruption in Rajiv Gandhi's regime. He changed the landscape of governance forever, at least in the Hindi heartland, by implementing the recommendations of the Mandal Commission and providing reservations to Other Backward Classes (OBCs). He openly challenged the communal and divisive politics of Lal Krishna Advani. But he secured his place in history for a very mundane reason: he showed that the salvation of a stagnant society lay not in the 'professionalism' of whiz kids from elite schools, but rather in the old-fashioned street politics of dusty villages and bustling bazaars. It was his contribution in establishing the primacy of politics that made his admirers intone, He isn't a raja but an ascetic, destiny of the country manifest. More importantly, it was V P Singh's disdain for meritocracy that made him the target of the comfortable classes. Tagdhari twice-born Hindus had always used the excuse of aptitude, background and competitiveness – believed to be the ABCs of suitability for public life – to maintain their hegemony in society. V P Singh turned the logic on its head, and reasoned that concord, balance and affirmative action were important ingredients for true progress and social justice.

Between gun and trishul
V P Singh did succeed in shaking off the stranglehold of the Nehru-Gandhi family from the Ganga plain, but he had to pay a very heavy price for his achievements. His supporters believed that he hesitated too much, that he had refused to take the bull – the belligerent Bharatiya Janata Party – by the horns, and ultimately created the conditions for the demolition of the Babri Masjid. His critics (and that included most Indian upper castes and the majority of the middle class) alleged that he introduced 'divisive' politics. But all that the Raja had done was to let the politics of L K Advani play out, and to concentrate his energy on reducing the deep divisions in Indian society. He ploughed a lonely furrow, and let others reap the rewards of his efforts. In that sense, he proved to be the faqir that his followers believed him to be.

V P Singh's tenure as prime minister was remarkably brief, but momentous. He presided over the destiny of his country for less than a year from December 1989 to November 1990, but he changed the course of history in a multitude of ways. Not only the Indian Parliament but legislative assemblies in many states presented a truer picture of India following the implementation of the Mandal Commission report than they had done ever before. Coalition governments are now regular features of Indian politics, as competing caste groups force political parties to accommodate their interests. Are these negative trends? That depends upon which side of the fence you are on. For the underprivileged, the messiness of raucous and confrontational politics is the only way to introduce peaceful change in a long-dormant society. The alternatives to such 'divisive' politics, after all, are the 'unifying' guns of the Naxalites and terrifying trishuls of the BJP.

In Sri Lanka, the Sinhalese and Tamils alike will remember V P Singh for pulling out the Indian Peace-Keeping Force from the island. Had this not been done with some alacrity, the country would have probably dropped further into the abyss, pulling the stability of the Subcontinent along with it. Rajiv Gandhi had to pay the price for the IPKF adventures with his life, but V P Singh saved India's defence forces from certain disgrace by withdrawing them from a conflict they could never win. Ironically, a section of the Indian intelligentsia still feels that the Raja robbed them of glory by prematurely pulling out of a war that was purportedly on the verge of being finished. The most poignant lesson of history is indeed that nobody ever learns anything from it. If only Europe had someone like V P Singh with the courage to pull out from Afghanistan, and leave the country to god and god-fearing Afghans.

Few in Nepal recall, but the crippling economic blockade the country suffered at the hands of the Indian establishment would have continued much longer had V P Singh not taken the initiative to ease restrictions and then lift them completely following the restoration of multiparty democracy in the spring of 1990. The contribution of former Indian Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar in Nepal's democratic struggles are gratefully acknowledged, but not many Nepalis know about the backchannel communications that V P Singh conducted through fellow former princelings in order to convince King Birendra that constitutional monarchy was his last option for an honourable settlement with agitating political parties. Both at home and abroad, Singh came to be better known for his rectitude than for his reasonableness. But he was a sensible politician fired by idealism, and not an idealist lost in the political world.

In later life, when illness increasingly robbed him of vitality, V P Singh took refuge in poetry and painting. He could have as easily become a patron of one of several minor parties that would have then declared him a martyr, in order to draw political capital from his death. He chose instead to quietly accept escape from his agony, and "fell like a tree in the forest" in the words of one Southasian journalist. Solitude in life and acute loneliness on the deathbed is the price any reformer has to be ready to pay. Such a fate looks more conspicuous when it befalls a former prime minister, of course, but most social engineers leave this world unheralded and unsung. Only history records their role. V P Singh survives in the self-assurance and quite confidence of OBC youths, as they slowly overcome their initial brazenness, born out of the deep insecurities over the centuries. If the comfortable classes of urban India feel a little less empowered because of decisions taken by the late Raja of Manda, that is their problem – not of the teeming millions of Bharat.

~ C K Lal is a columnist for this magazine and for the Nepali Times.

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