Ajit Singh: Face of Jat politics in UP and champion of farmers’ rights
- Son of north India’s tallest farm leader Charan Singh, Ajit was pushed into abruptly swapping a 15-year-long career as a computer scientist in Silicon Valley to the dusty fields of Western Uttar Pradesh in 1987.
Ajit Singh, the son of a former prime minister, a former Union minister who served under four prime ministers, and a seven-term member of Parliament, died of Covid last month.
But his political legacy was more happenstance than choice. Son of north India’s tallest farm leader Charan Singh, Singh was pushed into abruptly swapping a 15-year-long career as a computer scientist in Silicon Valley to the dusty fields of Western Uttar Pradesh in 1987.
“Dadaji [grandfather] was sick and there was a lot of pressure on him because there was a vacuum. There were a lot of tall leaders who were a part of getting him into politics and I don’t think he strategically thought about it,’’ said Jayant Chaudhary, who has now stepped into his father’s role as the president of the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD).
Singh never talked about his sudden political plunge, but Jayant gauged his reluctance when it was the younger man’s turn. “Unlike other politician fathers, he actually discouraged me,” said Chaudhary.
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Despite his reluctance, Singh quickly overcame his initial unfamiliarity with the caste and faith-based politics of western UP and cultivated his father’s close associations with farmer groups.
From 1987 to 2014, Singh forged key alliances with both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), getting the commerce and industry portfolio in VP Singh’s government in 1989 and then going on to serve in the PV Narasimha Rao, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh cabinets, delivering the crucial farmers’ vote from the Jat-Muslim belt to his ally.
His run ended when Narendra Modi swept to power in 2014, raiding the RLD’s turf. Singh lost his traditional Baghpat seat to former police commissioner Satyapal Singh in an election that happened months after the 2013 Jat-Muslim Muzaffarnagar riots that killed 70 people and displaced 100,000.
“It’s not that he didn’t lose an election before. It’s just that this time he knew that something had changed for good. And he saw it again in 2019,’’ said Jayant, referring to Singh’s narrow loss in Muzaffarnagar to the BJP’s Sanjeev Balyan.
Since 2014, the RLD has been reduced from being a kingmaker in UP to a marginal player – going from a strike rate of winning five out of seven seats in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections to zero seat out of eight in 2014 and zero out of three in 2019. In the 2017 assembly elections, it won a single seat out of the 277 contested.
Shortly after his first electoral loss in three decades, Singh got embroiled in a bitter standoff with the central government over his Tughlaq Road residence. Singh refused to vacate the bungalow, saying he wanted to convert it into a memorial for Charan Singh while the government said such conversions of Lutyens bungalows were banned under a 2000 law and that Singh was illegally overstaying. The authorities shut off water and electricity and Singh finally left for his Vasant Kunj farmhouse after 118 days. The faceoff left a bitter aftertaste. “He felt wronged. He felt many former PMs had their homes turned into memorials so why couldn’t he?’’ said former Haryana chief minister and close friend, Bhupinder Hooda. Their friendship was another thing Singh inherited: Charan Singh was close to Hooda’s father, former minister Ranbir Singh Hooda.
The one thing Hooda remembers most about his “brother’’ is his laughter. “Once we were together and this person, who I can’t name, was with us and he’d just left one party. So Ajit Singh asked him -- what happened? That person said he kicked the party. I will never forget that he started laughing while saying: “Kick them! Kick them faster and harder!’’
A seasoned politician, Singh knew that despite the poll reverses, the possibility of a comeback was always round the corner. The farmer protests, which broke out last year over three controversial agriculture bills, appeared to be an opportunity for just that.
As the agitation intensified at Delhi’s borders, Singh toured western UP, hosting mahapanchayats and renewing contact with farm leaders. On January 28, when forces closed in on the Ghazipur protest site and power supplies were cut, farm leader Rakesh Tikait received a call from Singh. “He told me not to worry and he said that we should carry on our protest, he would support us. That meant a lot to us,’’ said Tikait. Hours later, he issued an emotional appeal that galvanised farmers in western UP, and RLD called for joint mahapanchayats with farm leaders across the region
“From the beginning, he stayed true to farmers. Unlike other politicians, he didn’t go back and forth and will remain a lasting leader of the community,’’ said Tikait.
Between then and April, when he contracted Covid, Singh remained politically active, addressing large rallies. Right before he died after two weeks in hospital on May 6, he believed that his voters were ready to welcome the RLD and his ideas, that the pain of Muslim-Jat violence was trumped by a common farmer identity. His son Jayant now hopes to carry on that vision.