Most politicians are a combination of idealism, deviousness and cold-blooded calculation. So why was Vishwanath Pratap Singh, who became prime minister for 11 months in 1989-90 and who died last week at 77, different? The answer is that he had more in him of each of those elements, making the contradictions in him more pronounced even as he talked of “managing contradictions” in society, and engineering the right “collectivities”.
He became chief minister of Uttar Pradesh in 1980, when such appointments were decided by Sanjay Gandhi. He lived that down with a remarkable sequence of events two years later, when he launched a determined, target-driven assault on dacoits, ended up killing a raft of innocents as policemen chased numbers, and then quit in a show of morality without showing remorse for what he had unleashed. In a curious play of media-driven celebrity-hood that was to repeat itself, his reputation was established.
So when Rajiv Gandhi won his landslide electoral victory at the end of 1984, he turned to Mr Singh as his finance minister. The lieutenant decided early on that his naïve boss could be upstaged—and set about that task with a typical combination of idealism, target orientation and deviousness, plus of course cold-bloodedness. He launched tax reform, lowering the peak income tax rate from 69 per cent to 50 per cent in his first Budget, and then launched a "raid raj" as he went after transgressing businessmen (of whom there was no shortage, given the laws on the books), arrested even a respected octogenarian like SL Kirloskar, and hogged the headlines. He also launched the most determined assault before or since on Reliance Industries, bringing Dhirubhai Ambani's enterprise to its knees by applying a financial squeeze. His image as a lion-tamer had been built, but it was whispered into Mr Gandhi’s ear that his finance minister was inquiring into the financial affairs of not just his friends (the Bachchan family among them) but Mr Gandhi’s too. Mr Singh found himself shifted from finance to defence, but he released a bombshell: money had been made on a defence deal. He never disclosed which, but when the Bofors scandal broke weeks later, in a typical act of contrariness he denied that that was what he was talking about. Soon he walked out of the government and Parliament, launched the Jan Morcha, won a by-election and fought the Congress in the 1989 general elections—dubbing the original Mr Clean as an agent of Bofors and emerging as Mr Super-Clean himself (he had, after all, gifted his land during Vinoba Bhave's bhoodan movement). He insisted right through that he did not want to be prime minister, declaring that he would be a disastrous PM, but was happy to be sworn in after the elections and soon proved the disaster that he had said he would be.
He survived on support from the BJP, which by then had launched its campaign on Ram Janmabhoomi. To sidetrack growing communal tension, he pulled out the decade-old Mandal Commission report on Other Backward Classes and announced 27 per cent reservation for OBCs. An almighty protest erupted, students in Delhi burnt themselves on the streets, the BJP withdrew support after Mr Advani was arrested in Bihar and his rath yatra stopped, and that was the end of Mr Singh’s government. However, the 27 per cent reservation for OBCs is now a settled fact of life, as VP Singh's permanent legacy to the country.
Mr Singh took up the odd cause after that, but did not try to revive his political career, spending time on his twin leisure pursuits—painting and poetry, both of forgettable quality. He fought cancer for a decade, and succumbed at a time when the passions that he aroused in the eventful 1980s have mostly been forgotten. Still, VP Singh deserves his niche in contemporary Indian history.