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Did V.P. Singh really want to shake up India?

The former Prime Minister, best remembered for the Mandal Commission, was neither a disruptor nor a strong leader but a man who knew how to play his cards

Former Prime Minister V.P. Singh addressing a rally about implementation of the Mandal Commission Report in August 1990
Former Prime Minister V.P. Singh addressing a rally about implementation of the Mandal Commission Report in August 1990 (Hindustan Times)

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Disruption theory is relatively simple and comes to us from management studies. It distinguishes between the incumbent and the newcomer. A successful disruptor initiates some form of innovation to catch the incumbent on the wrong foot and cater to a set of previously neglected customers. In his book, The Disruptor: How Vishwanath Pratap Singh Shook India, author and political journalist Debashish Mukerji portrays Singh as a disruptor.

The seventh Prime Minister of India V.P. Singh achieved a sensational victory in 1989. He put together a coalition that defeated the Congress, which had until then been beaten only once previously and, in the term, just before its defeat, had been elected with the largest numbers in parliamentary history. His government announced the implementation of the Mandal Commission Report, which paved the way for the reservations for Other Backward Castes (OBCs) in the central government and public sector institutions and created space for a massive social and political transformation. Despite these dramatic developments that changed Indian politics forever, Singh himself never returned to the centre stage.

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Some of Singh’s disruptive ideas and acts did shake up the status quo, including attempts to change the traditional nature of government-business relations, open up the economy, run a coalition with support from parties across the political spectrum, and introduce reservations for the OBCs. While Singh actively initiated the former, other measures that he discussed like Right to Information, rural employment, Lokpal, one rank-one pension and national security council among others, took concrete shape many years later.

The literature also tells us that disruption is a high-risk activity and the chances of failure are high. Many of his initiatives took wing and transformed the economy and the political system. There has been a participant revolution and a democratic deepening which has brought the traditionally socially marginalised sections to the forefront. The traditional party of consensus, the Congress has been reduced to a pale shadow of itself. The economy has opened up dramatically with greater space for the market.

More than three decades later, neither Singh nor the party he was associated with, the Congress and later the Janata Dal, benefited from these so-called disruptive moves. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which he both opposed and collaborated with is the dominant party today. Ironically, the BJP receives maximum support from those social groups that Singh sought to patronise. Therefore, the question to be asked is whether the disruptor, Vishwanath Pratap Singh, actually wanted to shake India.

Mukerji does not attempt or even claim to read Singh’s mind, which probably is the strength of this biography. In his narrative, he places VP Singh the individual within a triad of factors—the institutional framework (political system including the party and party system), the immediate and present context, and the broader structural (socio-economic) environment. Mukerji weaves his narrative around these three dimensions. This holds the biography together and gives the reader enough space to draw their conclusions.

This triad helps us understand and appreciate Singh, the individual and the leader, and the socio-political milieu in which he practised his craft. Mukerji is cautious and rightly does not paint Singh as that “great” or “heroic” leader. Singh, it appears, just held office and navigated the intricacies of party politics and government management. This bare minimum and typical leadership style, coupled with the acute desire to be well thought of at all costs, does not push him to the extraordinary league of transformative leaders.

The Disruptor: How Vishwanath Pratap Singh Shook India, by Debashish Mukerji, Harper Collins India,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>699
The Disruptor: How Vishwanath Pratap Singh Shook India, by Debashish Mukerji, Harper Collins India, 699

V.P. Singh was in the Legislative Assembly, Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha at various times and held key positions like the chief minister, union minister and prime minister. He is the typical Congress worker who knew his place within the system as well as who mattered and needed to be kept in the good books. Singh deeply revered his leader and was eternally grateful to Indira Gandhi for giving him opportunities in both Lok Sabha and as Uttar Pradesh chief minister. Not surprisingly, he believed the leader had to be supported, even if it was at the cost of weakening the party as an institution. He closed his eyes to the party bending the rules, including stuffing ballot boxes and hurting opponents physically. He was part of the government that declared the Emergency, stymied civil and political rights and rode roughshod over state governments. Singh was, therefore, no stranger to both the political culture of the Congress and Indian politics and is very much an insider and a product of the system.

There are at least five distinct takeaways in this contribution. One, the party matters. The rise and fall of Singh underscores a point we often ignore: elections are not simply a contest between leaders. In parliamentary democracies, leaders are products of the party, and they are constrained and enabled by the call that a party takes. Singh occupied key positions when he was an active politician because of the party. Even when he was chosen to head the National Front government in 1989, it was not because he had demonstrated exceptional leadership skills in previous positions of power.

The Janata Dal was sharply divided on multiple issues, and worse, the coalition Singh put together also had big differences. There were leaders who had a longer, more consistent and credible anti-Congress lineage. Singh was chosen not because he was the most convincing speaker or even the best representative but simply because the coalition believed he was most popular with the electorate.

Second, the persistence of feudal modes of societal interaction, if not the system itself in Uttar Pradesh, comes out sharply in this study. All the progress that came with the introduction of modern education, communication, and industrialisation during the colonial and post-colonial periods appears to have bypassed large sections of the state. UP has neither developed a political culture that distinguishes between appropriate and inappropriate behaviour nor reached a consensus on fundamental political values and beliefs. At the same time, it also does not understand what change is required and how it could be brought about.

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Singh’s rise and his politics are a product of this context. His privileged background as the son of a former royal gave him a leg up to move close to power and then rapidly climb the greasy pole. During his tenure as Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, there is almost nothing to indicate that his government was acutely conscious of the backwardness of the state or the needs of the most miserable and backward sections of society. Despite being aware that some sections wanted more than material benefits and were looking for a more dignified and respected life, these issues did not figure in his politics.

Third, Singh’s actions show that he did not have any grand ideology, overarching mission or even an egalitarian vision. Some believe that Singh did not get due recognition and has been unfairly treated like most Congress leaders who fell out with its leadership. They credit Singh with the bold step of initiating the implementation of the Mandal Commission report, which supposedly unleashed a large scale social and economic transformation. Similarly, Singh was committed to secularism and apparently sacrificed his government by stopping BJP leader L.K. Advani’s Rath Yatra. Was Singh a social transformer? Was he committed to the cause of religious tolerance and diversity?

Every time VP Singh is chosen as leader, there is little or no support for him, probably because of the lack of imagination of his politics and his inability to grapple with India's complexities

From Mukerji's narrative, it appears that while Singh was sympathetic to the cause, he was no radical social revolutionary or textbook secularist. Implementing the Mandal recommendations and the Rath Yatra drama were simply part of the games within the anti-Congress coalition. Mandal was meant to short-circuit Deputy Prime Minister Devi Lal, who had been consistently working at cross-purposes and tarnishing Singh's image and that of his government. The stoppage of the Rath Yatra was similarly calculated to check the BJP and garner support from the Muslim community.

The tactical calculations come out particularly well in the sections where Mukerji describes Singh's attempt to get elected to the legislative assembly. Singh's politics is transactional and is solely devoted to the need to get elected. There is “no demos” but “only ethnos”, and his politics is based on shrewd calculations regarding the presence and numerical strength of different communities and groups in the constituency. There is no normative concern of special recognition or understanding of the issues and needs of diverse communities. Furthermore, Singh is always more concerned about his image than the high principles and values he supposedly held.

Fourth, the Congress was weakening, and there were numerous flaws in its working. Despite being aware of this, Singh did nothing to change course. Mukerji illustrates this in numerous places. For example, there is reference to the fact that marginalised sections of society who turned up in favour of the Congress were demanding a greater say. Yet, the party ignored these demands and continued with business as usual.

Similarly, Indira Gandhi promoted people who were novices and looked up to her for their survival. Singh benefited from this tactic, which destroyed the party organisation in the long run. Singh was no institution builder but someone who fitted himself to the situation.

Finally, every time V.P. Singh is chosen as leader, there is little or no support for his leadership. This probably has to do with the sheer lack of imagination of his politics and his inability to grapple with the complexities of India's challenges. He neither had any core conviction that was future-looking, nor was he responsive to the needs of vast sections of society crying out for change. His leadership is, not surprisingly, uninspiring, and he is forced to look over his shoulder when faced with difficult decisions.

We already know much of what is there in this biography, especially since there are at least three previous studies of Singh. What is new in this offering are the more personal details of Singh’s early childhood and his relations with family members. Mukerji's focus is on the formation and termination of the coalition; it would have been helpful to have more on the politics between these two ends. Nevertheless, this is a splendid piece of writing and will be a valuable read to those interested in political biographies and contemporary political history.

KK Kailash is with the Department of Political Science, University of Hyderabad.

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