India was all of 10 years old when Acharya Vinoba Bhave introduced the nation to a “modern day Siddharth” at Allahabad. The Acharya’s Siddharth— Vishwanath Pratap Singh, the last Raja of Manda — was 26 years old then, and would go on to become prime minister.
VP Singh would have been 84 years old today.
The Acharya’s prescient vision had identified VP Singh’s commitment to social equality and justice. Guided by the Mahatma’s vision, Singh had by then already initiated inter-caste dining and shramdhaan (voluntary labour) programmes in Koraon and Meja sub-districts of Allahabad. Hundreds of volunteers dug lakes, worked in the fields of the local Kol tribals and participated in inter-caste dinners.
This was one Singh’s earliest victories against the caste system. More was to come, and even Singh could not have then foreseen it.
This year is the 25th since Singh’s biggest victory against the caste system. It was on August 7, 1990 that Singh as prime minister announced implementation of Mandal Commission’s recommendations. It wasn’t political expediency that prompted this; the decision had been made even before he contested the 1989 elections. The Mandal Commission was a vital part of the Janata Dal manifesto and Singh kept his promise.
The impact of VP Singh’s Mandal move is his real legacy. The doors of political and economic power have been opened to millions of underprivileged countrymen. Poorly represented groups have been forged into a political force by Singh’s action, affecting the political dynamics of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in particular.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s backward caste origin has been a key factor in his all-round electoral victory of 2014. Everybody needs backward caste votes now.
Singh’s bigger achievement was the dissolution of rigid caste boundaries, freeing backward classes from the clutches of feudal system. Upward mobility of individuals is now a function of government jobs and education, signalling the beginning of a socio-economic shift from caste to class.
Ironically, it is Singh’s own Kshatriya caste that felt the most betrayed. Singh had to defend himself even within his own family, arguing that social equality in India would come about when the oppressors handed over the reins of power to those who have been shunned for thousands of years.
Being a Thakur, Singh believed, only made his commitment to society stronger. “Sacrifice is our duty,” he would say to fellow Thakurs.
A sense of justice was a duty too. Deeply saddened by the lives lost in the anti-Mandal agitations, Singh’s sense of justice is what drove him forward. Perhaps, he had the perspective to see that the protests were not the shrieks of individuals but rather the cries of a dying exploitative social system.
Singh changed politics forever. The platform of non-Muslim unity that the right wing sought to possess was demolished overnight. It was replaced by a new political formula — SC/ST-OBC-Muslims — and regionalisation of power structures was the inevitable result.
In a candid conversation, a senior BJP leader admitted to Singh at his residence that “after the Mandal Commission implementation the only thing left for us to get votes with was Ayodhya.”
Singh was unseated by the growing momentum of that very movement. He spent the rest of his life fighting right wing ideology. He lost both his kidneys after a fast against the 1993 riots in Mumbai.
Land acquisition was another cause that Singh fought for, being among the first to protest land acquisition by the government for private companies.
With Singh’s death in 2008, socialist thinking seemed to have lost its centre of gravity. His work goes on, however.
(The writer is the grandson of the former prime minister)