When VP Singh worked to make Sonia Gandhi the PM in 2004
To block the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader LK Advani’s possible rise as Prime Minister (PM), VP Singh, a former PM himself and the elder statesman of non-BJP, non-Congress political spectrum, had mobilised regional parties and lobbied with the Dravida Munnetra Kazagham (DMK)’s M Karunanidhi to support a Sonia Gandhi-led government after the 2004 elections in which the Congress emerged as the single largest party.
Singh foresaw Advani pitching for the top slot as the BJP was just seven short of the Congress’s tally of 145 in the new Lok Sabha. The risk seemed real to him because in 1998, Gandhi toppled AB Vajpayee but failed to touch the magic 272 to give an alternative regime in the 545-member House.
In his recent book, in Hindi, VP Singh, Chandrashekhar, Sonia Gandhi Aur Mein, former MP Santosh Bhartiya, known for his proximity to the two former PMs named in the title, gives a graphic account of how Singh played a key role in the run-up to the formation of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, where he was mobilising support for Sonia Gandhi as PM before she decided she did not want the post.
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The political ground work
Functioning through the interface of Bhartiya and the Congress’s Ahmed Patel, Singh mobilised support for Gandhi from other non-BJP heavyweights, including former PMs Chandrashekhar and HD Deve Gowda, the Left Front’s towering leader Jyoti Basu, and veteran Dalit leader Ram Vilas Paswan.
Singh told Bhartiya that he wouldn’t have had second thoughts if Vajpayee were to be PM again, but his assessment that this could pave the way for Advani to take over appears to have got Singh back in the political ring.
“Given that the BJP’s on the road to spreading communalism, Sonia Gandhi should be supported for the PM office...”
Singh first met Gandhi on May 10, 2004, a day after Patel prepared the ground for it. The Congress president’s political secretary was briefed by Bhartiya on Singh’s stand in the emerging scenario. Many such meetings and phone conversations between Gandhi and Gowda and the Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s Basu and HS Surjeet happened before the May 13 poll results.
The early-mover advantage helped the non-BJP formations. Singh reached out to Chandrashekhar who met Gandhi with him after initial reluctance. Leaving for her residence from a meeting at which the Left parties conveyed their decision to back the Congress, the book quotes Chandrashekhar as saying: “Now we’ve to go meet the future PM of India....”
Persuading the DMK
But Singh’s real skill and the respect he commanded was apparent in how he won Karunanidhi over. When the DMK leader told him that he was on his way to meet Vajpayee, to whom he was committed, Singh asked for a sheet of paper. He wrote on it a letter of support for Gandhi and signed it on Karunanidhi’s behalf.
“I’ve written the letter. You can deny it if you want and file an FIR against me for forgery,” Bhartiya quotes Singh as telling Karunanidhi at the meeting in his presence. The former PM’s antics melted the DMK chief who leaned ahead to clasp his hands, saying: “If you’re willing to go to that extent, then go tell Sonia Gandhi that I’m with her.”
The two leaders had a history. In 1996, the DMK helmsman was among the three sitting CMs, including Karnataka’s Deve Gowda and Bengal’s Jyoti Basu, who had gone knocking at Singh’s residence to persuade him to become the PM of the United Front government with the Congress’s outside support. Singh refused, but his decision earned him tremendous moral standing. Singh had then suggested Basu’s name to which the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM) wasn’t agreeable. The gainer eventually was Gowda. DMK had been a part of the UF governments, both under Gowda and his successor, IK Gujral.
And that is why ensuring Karunanidhi’s support for Gandhi was nothing short of a political coup, given the Congress’s 1998 withdrawal of support to Gujral for his refusal to break ties with the DMK. The dispute then arose over the Jain Commission’s “needle of suspicion” at the Dravidian party in the “conspiracy aspect” of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination.
While the DMK’s support for the Congress stayed, Singh’s hopes of a Sonia Gandhi prime ministership didn’t materialise. On May 17, her emissaries ML Fotedar and Natwar Singh turned up with a slip for Singh. He read it and laconically remarked: “Kya kar sakte hain jab unhone faisala le he liya hai, what can we do when she has decided?”, according to Bhartiya’s book.
It was Gandhi’s way of conveying that Manmohan Singh was her PM candidate. An (unnamed) person later met Singh to explain that Sonia’s children were against her being the PM. This version is confirmed by Natwar Singh in his memoirs.
The final break with Rajiv
Bhartiya’s book is an anecdotal account of a tumultuous two-decade long period in Indian politics, from 1984 to 2004, and traces, among other issues, the falling out of VP Singh with the Gandhi family to his initiative to support Sonia Gandhi as PM.
What decisively drew Rajiv and Singh apart was a meeting on May 22, 1987. By then, differences had already emerged between them. They were face-to-face after the PM spoke of fifth columnists such as Mir Jafar and Jaichand at a public meeting where Singh was in the audience. His mention of Jaichand with the affix “Raja” was seen as a frontal attack on Singh who, by then, had resigned as defence minister. Singh was often referred to as the Raja of Manda, in a nod to his land-owning roots in Allahabad.
“Aajkal tumhari bahut jai jaikaar ho rahi hai, kya karne ka irada hai. There is a lot of applause for you these days. What do you intend to do?” the book quotes Rajiv Gandhi as asking Singh. In response, Singh said that he remained a Congressman, and if the PM so wanted, he could leave politics for a retired life in Allahabad.
According to the book, this met with a sharp retort from Gandhi: “The accolades won’t last, you’d return the way Pranab Mukherjee has. You won’t be able to sustain for three months.” The reference was to Mukherjee who had left and returned to the Congress on being dropped as a minister in 1984. The taunt had Singh take the gauntlet: “I won’t stop if I sustain for three months Rajivji. I accept your challenge.”
Two-and-a-half decades later, Singh returned to support Sonia Gandhi. And he brought along with him Chandrashekhar. Both men had fought each other, Chandrashekhar had rebelled against Sonia Gandhi’s mother in law, Indira, in the 1970s, and Singh had challenged her husband. Politics had come a full circle.