VP Singh’s was a complex persona, often bewildering, mostly impregnable. The man who changed forever the Indian political landscape by playing the Mandal card, had in him a bit of a poet, a painter and a pragmatic politician. At one stage in his life, he was as much revered as hated as an emancipator of the backward classes, whom Ram Manohar Lohia spotted but failed to adequately mobilise against the Congress’s Brahmin-Dalit-Muslim combine that remained undefeated for decades after Independence.
VP’s short-lived rule evoked as much admiration as despise, catapult — as it did — the ‘kamandal’ forces in reaction to his Mandal card. On being dispossessed of power and the political relevance that he once commanded, VP, a secularist to the core, paid penance by sparing no effort in combating the BJP’s “communal agenda”.
His was a political mind without many peers. He predicted events with astrological aplomb that was hard to miss in his demand for a national debate on nuclear policy even before A.B. Vajpayee took oath in 1998. The 13-month NDA regime that followed is remembered only for Pokhran-II the Sangh Parivar showcased as its “shakti pradarshan”.
In 1996, when three non-Congress, non-BJP CMs stood at his doorsteps to make him PM the second time over, VP went for a long drive on Delhi’s ring road. He later said the “the Congress wouldn’t have lent outside support to a minority government under his charge.”
Once a friend and later a detractor of Rajiv Gandhi, VP remained forever an unabashed Indira Gandhi admirer. A stock tale he had on offer was about a bowl of plastic fruits on the dining table at which they shared a meal. “She laughed as I reached for an apple and took a bite,” he’d recall.
Lacking the erudition of his step-brother Sant Bux Singh, who studied in England, VP embellished his political record with matchless native wisdom. But it was irritating at times the way he wore his honesty on his sleeves, turning up in torn ‘kurta-pyjamas’ at the numerous press conferences he gave on quitting Rajiv’s government over corruption in defence deals. So much so that he’d have just one or two typed copies of his statements for a room-full of journalists on the plea that he couldn’t afford a photocopier.
His ascetic aura inspired slogans like “Raja nahi fakir hai, desh ki takdir hai” and had passengers lining up across vestibules for a “darshan” of the man so much beyond the pale of criticism. Even a stray anti-remark those days would have sceptics face the charge of being Dhirubhai Ambani acolytes.