Vishwanath Pratap Singh

Vishwanath Pratap Singh

Singh, Vishwanath Pratap, 1931-2008, Indian politician and prime minister (1989-90). As finance minister under Rajiv Gandhi (1984-87) he pursued policies of economic liberalization. Expelled from Gandhi's Congress party in 1989, he formed a broad-based anti-Congress coalition, the Janata Dal. He became prime minister of a minority government when he deprived the Congress of a majority in the 1989 parliamentary elections. Inherently unstable, his government was marked by factionalism and undermined by opposition to his decision to reserve some public sector jobs for the lower classes; he was forced to resign in 1990.

Vishwanath Pratap Singh (विश्वनाथ प्रताप सिंह, born 25 June 1931) was the 10th Prime Minister of the Republic of India.

Early career

V. P. Singh entered local politics in Allahabad during the Nehru era. He 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.

Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh

He was appointed by Indira Gandhi as the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh in 1980, when the Congress came back to power after the Janata Party 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.

Cabinet Minister for Finance and Defence

Called to the Centre following Rajiv Gandhi's massive mandate in the 1984 General elections, he was appointed to the pivotal post of Finance Minister, where he oversaw the gradual relaxation of the license Raj as Rajiv had in mind. During his term as Finance Minister, he oversaw the reduction of gold smuggling by reducing gold taxes and the excellent tactic of giving the police a portion of the smuggled gold that they found. 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. Following a number of high-profile raids on suspected evaders - including Dhirubhai Ambani and Amitabh Bachchan - 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 that only a sideways move seemed to have been 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.

In Opposition

Janata Dal

Together with associates Arun Nehru and Arif Mohammad Khan, Singh floated an opposition party named the Jan Morcha. He was re-elected to Lok Sabha in a tightly contested by-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, and V. P. Singh was elected the President of the Janata Dal. A federation of the Janata Dal with various regional parties including the DMK, TDP, and AGP, came into being, called the National Front (India), with V. P. Singh as convener and N. T. Rama Rao as President.

General Elections of 1989

The National Front fought the elections in 1989 after coming to an electoral understanding with the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party and the Communist Left Front 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 Communists and the BJP declined to serve in the government, preferring to support it from outside.

Election as Prime Minister

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.

Prime Minister

Singh held office for slightly less than a year, from December 2, 1989 - November 10, 1990.

Punjab and Kashmir

He faced his first crisis within few days of taking office: 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, 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 elements 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 also withdrew the IPKF from Sri Lanka.

Reservation for Backward Classes

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.

Tussle with Dhirubhai Ambani

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 L&T'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.

Babri Masjid

Meanwhile the BJP 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, Lal Krishna Advani, 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 on the charges of disturbing the peace and fomenting communal tension. This led to the BJP's suspension of support to the National Front government. V. P. Singh faced the vote of confidence 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 of various shades in Parliament before losing the vote 142-346; only the portion of the National Front remaining loyal to him (see below) and the Left front supported him in the vote.

Chandra Shekhar

Chandra Shekhar immediately seized the moment and left the Janata Dal with several of his own supporters to form the Samajwadi Janata Party or the Socialist People's Party. Although he 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. He lasted only a few months before Gandhi withdrew support and fresh elections were called. He tried his level best to get support till last minute but failed.

Aftermath

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 his artistic pursuits, chiefly painting. In the H. D. Deve Gowda and I. K. Gujral governments of the late 1990s, Singh acted as a sort of elder statesman and adviser for the successors to the National Front coalition. In 1992, Singh was the first to propose the name of the future President K. R. Narayanan as a (eventually successful) candidate for Vice President. Later the same year in December, he led his followers to Ayodhya to oppose the Kar seva proposed by L. K. Advani, and was arrested before he could reach the site; the Masjid was demolished by the kar sevaks a few days later. He was diagnosed with cancer in 1998 and ceased his public appearances.

Jan Morcha relaunch

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 notion of populist socialism was thus squeezed out of the electoral marketplace. To remedy this, he relaunched the Jan Morcha in 2005 with Raj Babbar as President, and began the slow process of aggregation of smaller parties in the North with a view to contesting the Uttar Pradesh elections.

Agitation at Dadri

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 A. B. Bardhan were again arrested on the U. P. 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 .

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