Excerpt: The Disruptor; How Vishwanath Pratap Singh Shook India by Debashish Mukerji

VP Singh’s prime-ministership was short but eventful and changed the trajectory of the nation. This first exclusive excerpt from a new book on him shows how the Mandal report’s recommendations on quotas for OBCs was finally implemented in 1993 despite widespread protests
VP Singh at the All Party Meeting on Reservation on 3 September, 1990. (Virendra Prabhakar/HT Photo)
VP Singh at the All Party Meeting on Reservation on 3 September, 1990. (Virendra Prabhakar/HT Photo)
Updated on Nov 26, 2021 09:00 PM IST
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ByDebashish Mukerji

...‘Implementing the Mandal report was never VP Singh’s brainchild,’ said Som Pal. ‘It was a Janata Party commitment he inherited.’ But as Prime Minister, VP promptly began taking preliminary steps towards enforcing it…

VP knew well that he had to tread cautiously. The parties on which his government depended heavily for its slim majority—the BJP and the communists—were both lukewarm to the report’s recommendations. The BJP wasn’t enthused because, like the Congress, its supporters were mainly upper-caste, while the communists maintained on principle that caste was ‘false consciousness’ and only class differences mattered. VP knew, too, that enforcing the report’s 27 per cent proposal could lead to strong protests from the castes adversely affected…

…But there was also an important fault line running through the Janata Dal’s peasant support base inherited from Charan Singh. Though the bulk of it comprised OBCs, it did not include all small and middle farmers, and thus not all backed the Mandal report’s recommendations. In particular, the Jats… were regarded as an ‘intermediate caste’ and had been left out of the Mandal Commission’s list.

…Thus Devi Lal, a Jat, showed little interest in the eight-member Mandal report implementation committee VP had made him chairman of, his indifference even provoking another member, Ram Pujan Patel, who belonged to an OBC caste and was anxious to see the recommendations implemented, to resign in protest.

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543pp, ₹699; HarperCollins
543pp, ₹699; HarperCollins

…VP did his best to accommodate Devi Lal… But once he had dismissed Devi Lal from his cabinet on 1 August 1990, VP steadfastly refused... to take him back. He may well have recalled the experience of Janata Party Prime Minister Morarji Desai a decade ago, who, clashing repeatedly with Charan Singh, his deputy prime minister—just as VP had done with Devi Lal—had forced him to resign in mid-1978, only to bring him back into the cabinet as finance minister in January 1979. It had… helped Charan Singh strengthen his position and finally led to him splitting the party six months later.

A major reason for Desai’s rethink—apart from the pressure of Charan Singh’s supporters in the party—was Charan Singh’s demonstration of his popular appeal by organizing an 800,000-strong farmers’ rally at Delhi’s Boat Club on 23 December 1978, his seventy-seventh birthday. So too did Devi Lal seek to repeat history, immediately after his expulsion, announcing a similar rally for 9 August 1990. (It was not his birthday, but the anniversary of the start of the Quit India movement.)

Many more Janata Dal MPs owed their nominations to Devi Lal than to VP. If he was unwilling to reconcile with Devi Lal, VP knew he would have to find some means of preventing them from attending the farmers’ rally. Their choice would indicate… which side they would back if Devi Lal sought to split the party, as surely he soon would.

Som Pal tried hard to get Devi Lal to compromise, but without success… But once Devi Lal had been dropped, Som Pal felt that VP’s best option lay in quitting and seeking fresh elections, since his government was now doomed anyway… (But) VP was not willing to sacrifice his prime ministerial position as insouciantly as he had renounced his earlier jobs of UP chief minister or Union defence minister… Perhaps he also feared, given his modest record as Prime Minister…, that if he did call another election, he might well lose.

Whatever his reasons, VP decided to implement the Mandal report’s recommendations instead, which he felt would make it impossible for his OBC MPs to desert him and join Devi Lal.

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Three people played crucial supporting roles in VP’s historic decision to adopt the Mandal Commission report… The first was Sharad Yadav, minister for textiles and food processing in his cabinet, himself an OBC Yadav by caste, who still smarted from the caste humiliation he had faced from teachers at his village school…

‘VP Singh telephoned me in the evening (of 1 August 1990) and said he was finding it difficult to work with Devi Lal,’ said Sharad Yadav. ‘I said, “Don’t be hasty; don’t ask him to resign or any such thing.”’ VP then revealed that he had already removed Devi Lal from the cabinet. They agreed on a breakfast meeting the next morning, at 7, Race Course Road… ‘We were both committed to the Mandal Commission report, but V.P. Singh was not too enthusiastic about implementing it immediately,’ Yadav added. ‘I told him, “If you want the Lok Dal [B] MPs to stay with you, you have no choice. You either bring it in or we go with Devi Lal.” Gardan pakad ke karwaya unsey (I held him [figuratively] by the neck and got him to do it).’

VP proposed announcing the decision in his Independence Day speech, due in a fortnight. Sharad Yadav suggested he do it sooner. ‘I said, “That might be too late. It should be announced before Devi Lal holds his 9 August rally,”’ he recalled. Both of them realized that Devi Lal, for all his earlier indifference to the report, could well declare at his rally that he had been keen to enforce it but that VP had been obstructing him. Their announcing its implementation thereafter would be politically fruitless.

The second was Ram Vilas Paswan, minister for social welfare, who, though a Dalit… was… a strong advocate of OBC reservation…

Janata Dal leaders wave to the crowds Mandal Mahasamelan rally held at Boat Club in New Delhi on 10 November 1992. (Sanjay Sharma/HT Photo)
Janata Dal leaders wave to the crowds Mandal Mahasamelan rally held at Boat Club in New Delhi on 10 November 1992. (Sanjay Sharma/HT Photo)

The third was PS Krishnan, secretary in the social welfare ministry, to whom Paswan entrusted the task. Krishnan was a 1956-batch IAS officer from the Andhra Pradesh cadre, who combined exhaustive knowledge of the legislative and judicial history related to Dalit and OBC reservations, with a marked bent in their favour…

He submitted a note on the Mandal report to the cabinet on 1 May 1990… pointing out that enforcing it needed no parliamentary approval but a mere executive order…

VP wrote to all the state chief ministers, seeking their opinion, in June 1990 — only the chief ministers of UP and Bihar replied, both supporting its prompt enforcement—but it was brought before the cabinet only on 2 August 1990, the day after he axed Devi Lal.

Barring Sharad Yadav and Paswan, most ministers were surprised. ‘…There was no previous build-up, no one knew it was coming,’ said Arif Khan… ‘I had nothing against the Mandal proposals…I brought up a matter of probity. You want to introduce something new. We don’t have a majority. We are running the government with the support of the BJP and the CPI [M]). Why not involve them?’ But VP knew that since neither party favoured it, trying to convince them would lead to further delays, while 9 August 1990 loomed.

… on the evening of 2 August 1990, there was also a boisterous National Front parliamentary party meeting in the Parliament Annexe… The MPs were overwhelmingly supportive of introducing the Mandal recommendations…

‘The meeting went on for four hours, with twenty-seven MPs speaking,’ said Som Pal. ‘One of the MPs, an OBC belonging to Chandra Shekhar’s faction, had the temerity to say sarcastically, “Jab tak iss desh ka PM savarn hoga, Mandal Commission lagoo nahi ho sakta (As long as the country’s Prime Minister is an upper-caste individual, the Mandal Commission report will never be implemented.)” That really provoked V.P. Singh…

…VP Singh stood up and said, “Let’s decide the date to introduce it right now.”’

The meeting chose 7 August 1990, the day Parliament would reopen for a fresh session. On the evening of 6 August 1990, Krishnan, Paswan and VP met for a final discussion at 7, Race Course Road, where Krishnan drafted the brief speech enforcing the Mandal report that VP had to make in the Lok Sabha the next day. It was only then that VP also made brief calls to top leaders of the BJP, the CPI and the CPI (M), informing them of his decision. BJP President Lal Krishna Advani tried hard to dissuade him, suggesting that the subject could be discussed at length at their weekly Tuesday dinner, only two days away. ‘VP Singh’s reply was, “No I cannot wait. I have to announce it tomorrow,”’ Advani recalled in his memoirs.

The official notification was issued on 13 August 1990, with the government listing only those castes as OBCs that were common to the Mandal Commission’s and the state governments’ lists — about 1,200 of them.

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More than the adoption of the Mandal report, it was the frenzied agitation against the step that made its impact memorable. ...Student protests began in Patna within a day of VP’s Lok Sabha announcement, reaching Delhi by 10 August 1990. Within a fortnight they had engulfed towns in all the north Indian states and spread beyond, stretching from Chandigarh to Calcutta…

Among the urban — and largely upper-caste — middle classes, who had once been VP’s loudest supporters, his image underwent a metamorphosis; he was now reviled for starting a caste war for political gain. ‘After Mandal, it was as if I was a different person,’ he said later.

He offered two concessions immediately — he would defer implementing the Mandal report’s suggestion of reserving an equal proportion of seats in technical and professional educational institutions (as in government jobs) for OBCs; he was also prepared to reserve another 10 per cent of such jobs for the poor, regardless of caste. Neither concession made any difference to the protesters, whose agitation intensified…

For VP, who cared so deeply about his image, its transformation must have been galling, but he expected the much larger constituency of OBCs he had aimed at to make up for it electorally...

in his 1990 Independence Day address. …He justified remaining impervious to the protests. ‘History has shown that any real change has come through an element of ruthlessness or it has not come at all,’ he said.

Author Debashish Mukerji (Courtesy the publisher)
Author Debashish Mukerji (Courtesy the publisher)

Curiously, the beneficiaries of his move, the OBCs, refrained from publicly demonstrating any support for him or countering the protesters — except in Bihar... But as became evident in the years that followed, the very vehemence of the protests had the effect of accelerating the politicization of the OBCs, making them a much more powerful composite pressure group in north India than they were before…

Politically, too, at least at first, VP’s gambit seemed a success. .. Devi Lal’s farmers’ rally at Delhi’s Boat Club, though mammoth in size, was successfully neutralized — very few Janata Dal MPs or MLAs attended it. (VP’s old enemy Chandra Shekhar did.)

In his speech, Devi Lal was forced to endorse the adoption of the very Mandal report he had been apathetic towards... Similarly, despite their dependence on upper-caste support, neither the BJP nor the Congress — as VP had anticipated — risked supporting the students or opposing the Mandal report’s enforcement publicly. ..

On 3 September 1990, VP held a meeting of all political parties, including the ones in Opposition, and got them all to endorse his decision…

With VP unbending, the agitation seemed to be shedding momentum when it was unexpectedly revived by a single incident, which set off a trend and, in turn, maimed his government irreparably. On 19 September 1990, almost six weeks after VP’s initial Mandal report announcement, Rajeev Goswami, a third year humanities student in south Delhi’s Deshbandhu College, who had been on a hunger strike for days with his friends to protest the Mandal report’s adoption without garnering any media attention, decided to set himself on fire to get it…

though he was rushed to a hospital with 65 per cent burns and eventually survived (he died in February 2004), he became the protest’s icon, with his example being regularly repeated for another four weeks…

152 young people followed Goswami’s example, including some thirteen-to-fourteen-year-olds, 63 of them dying of their burns.

VP was appalled…

Yet he remained unyielding about implementing the Mandal report. By then, a number of petitions questioning the constitutional validity of the report had been filed in the Supreme Court... Ultimately… it was the Supreme Court which, on 1 October 1990, directed that the 13 August 1990 order implementing the Mandal report be ‘kept in abeyance’… until it decided on the cases…

The much-awaited Supreme Court judgment… came two years later, on 16 November 1992. It found the adoption perfectly valid constitutionally, adding only one caveat—that OBCs with family incomes above a specified threshold (a section it called the ‘creamy layer’) should be excluded from reservations.…

On that evening of 16 November 1992, VP telephoned Krishnan. ‘If I die now, I’ll die a satisfied man,’ he said…

The relevant government order was issued on 10 September 1993, with the first IAS aspirants under the new quota being inducted in 1995.

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Friday, January 28, 2022