Arjun Singh, always in the race but never the king
History is full of ironies. Veteran Congress politician Arjun Singh, the quintessential loyalist, died a few hours after he was dropped from the Congress working committee. The scion of Churhat, a small feudal estate in MP, had joined the Congress in 1960 after a brief tryst with socialist politics. Even when he had left the party to join the breakaway Tiwari Congress during PV Narasimha Rao’s prime ministership, he had kept his links with the Gandhi family alive.
“Consistency may be the virtue of a donkey,” he once said, “but no one can (say) that I have ever been inconsistent.” His faith in old-fashioned socialist politics and secular values was unwavering. As chief minister of MP, he changed the fate of lakhs of slum dwellers in the mid-80s by giving them ownership rights to the land they had encroached upon. He was a champion of the cause of the minorities and backward castes (no coincidence that these groups also became his vote banks) his upper caste, feudal background notwithstanding. He kept proclaiming his loyalty towards the Nehru-Gandhi family despite his bitterness at being ignored during the past few years.
Singh became chief minister for the first time in 1980, despite being in a minority in the legislature party, due to his proximity to Sanjay Gandhi. At that time he was considered a second-rank leader in the state’s politics, dominated by the Shukla brothers (Shyama Charan and Vidya Charan) and PC Sethi. But very soon he consolidated his position by what came to be known as his politics of “culture, courtesy and conspiracy”. That was the period when he could not say ‘no’. It was once written about him that had he been a girl, he would be in the family way every now and then. (He rang up the writer at midnight to thank him for the “left handed compliment”.) However, all that changed once he became politically comfortable.
Singh was governor of Punjab at the height of Sikh militancy and the architect of the Rajiv-Longowal accord in 1985. He handled several portfolios in the union cabinet over two decades. Bureaucrats who worked with him remember him as an able administrator. He ruled with an iron hand. Even senior officers would start shaking and perspiring if Singh simply took off his glasses and stared at them. As an admirer said, “His orders would be implemented even if he would issue them on the back of a cigarette packet.” His detractors say his decisions were always political, leading to weakening of institutions.
The tragedy of Arjun Singh, the ambitious politician, was that he always remained number two. It is no secret that while working with both Rao and Manmohan Singh, the Thakur from Churhat felt that his rightful place had been usurped by lesser mortals. His finest hour was as Congress vice-president in Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure. But it was also a phase when he rubbed too many powerful men and women the wrong way and made them his lifelong enemies.
The politician in Singh used to revel in palace intrigues and controversies. His last brush with controversy was his dark hint that his planned biography will “reveal all” about Union Carbide chief Warren Anderson’s mysterious arrest and equally mysterious release after the Bhopal gas leak — a biography that apparently he has been unable to finish.