The importance of Raghuvansh Prasad Singh
Dr. Raghuvansh Prasad Singh (74), or Raghuvansh babu for those who have a ready connect with him, is a prized upper caste asset of a party that survives on backward caste politics, a loyal lieutenant of Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief Lalu Prasad since the late 1980s, the party’s intellectual powerhouse and a doctorate in mathematics.
He is also the unsung architect of India’s biggest welfare programme, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) of 2005.
Singh, a man of unquestionable integrity, was the Union rural development minister during the United Progressive Alliance (UPA-1) government (2004- 09) when his political boss Prasad was the minister for railways.
An MP from Bihar’s Vaishali constituency, Singh was entrusted with the key social sector ministry amid a flurry of welfare activities that would soon transform welfare models for poor Indians.
To be sure, MGNREGA faced its usual delay as at least three Congress heavyweights were not fully convinced of its utility and saw the programme as a leaky cauldron of public funds.
One afternoon, as UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi was passing through the Central Hall in Parliament, Singh walked up to her and briefed her about the inordinate delay in framing the scheme.
Within a few minutes, Gandhi summoned the then defence minister Pranab Mukherjee, who headed the Group of Ministers (GoM) on MGNREGA, and told him to expedite the project.
Soon, MGNREGA was rolled out in 200 districts in the country in 2006.
Singh was also instrumental in launching the disabled, widows and old age pension schemes. And it was during his tenure that the government started the process of amending the land acquisition law, which took final shape during UPA’s second tenure.
Singh’s association with Prasad goes back over three decades. And, he is also perhaps the only leader who could openly criticise Prasad and get away unscathed. Once he was asked in an interview how he would rate Prasad’s achievements. Singh replied that in political management, his boss would score a perfect 10 on 10 but as an administrator, he deserved nothing more than a zero.
Singh’s baiters within the RJD pounced on the opportunity to paint him in poor light before Prasad. They quickly brought the paper clippings to the RJD boss, demanding action against the former mathematics professor. The RJD chief, however, disappointed them: “Yes, he should not have said such a thing publicly, but whatever he has said is also not incorrect.”
It’s the Prasad bond that kept Singh alive in the RJD. He didn’t leave Prasad even though the Congress and other parties were always willing to accept him. In 2009, the Congress had again offered him the rural development ministry, even though the RJD had ceased to be an UPA ally. But Prasad didn’t agree.
Weeks before the upcoming Bihar elections – slated to be held on schedule in October and November, despite the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) outbreak – Singh on Thursday, submitted a hand-written resignation letter to Prasad. It said: “After (former Bihar chief minister) Karpuri Thakur’s death, I stood by you for 32 years, but no more.”
Party insiders said his equation with the new generation of RJD leaders has been under strain for a while now.
At present, Singh is admitted to All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in Delhi and is recovering from Covid-19-related complications.
Prasad responded to Singh’s letter and urged him not to join another party. “A letter written by you is circulating in the media. I cannot believe it. Me, my family and the RJD family want to see you recover soon. We will talk after you recover. You are not going anywhere. Just mind it,” the RJD chief said.
There have been swirling rumours that Singh could be headed towards Bihar CM Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United), or JD (U), ahead of the assembly polls.
The entry in the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) camp may also help him regain his Vaishali seat, which he has not won since 2009. It could be a win-win situation for both CM Kumar and Singh.
CM Kumar, who once got five pieces of advice on how to run the Bihar government from Singh written in a paper napkin on a flight, will get a trusted voice to represent the party in Delhi or even in the Modi cabinet.
Singh, a low-key politician known for his grassroots brand of politics, has been an unflinching champion of the poor.
Once he had written a letter to the then PM Manmohan Singh accusing a top-ranking minister of being anti-poor, or gharib-virodhi.
The then Planning Commission chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia had tried to mediate and told Singh that the senior minister was pained about his letter and he would want to accompany him to some of the villages to see how rural programmes were in progress.
“No”, Singh had replied, “he should come with me in the peak of summer in north Bihar and stay in an unelectrified village for at least three nights. Only then he would understand what it means to live in an Indian village.”