At 75, Vishwanath Pratap Singh frail from battling disease and with a demonstrated disinclination for office would hardly seem the ideal candidate for serious political action. But the former Prime Minister has enough fire left in him judging from the rush of VIPs to his New Delhi residence on June 25. The visitors were there primarily to wish Mr. Singh on his birthday but surely some of them were there also to suss out his newest baby, the Jan Dal-Jan Morcha combine slated to join the fray in election-bound Uttar Pradesh. The encomiums showered on the occasion were as much for the man's exceptional personal qualities as for his evidently undiminished grasp of politics. Mr. Singh, `VP' to friends and admirers, is distinguished by an endearing duality that makes him at once political animal and savant, a curious amalgam endowed with battlefield skills as well as a strong sense of right and wrong. His sharp political instincts brought him power from Chief Minister of U.P. through crucial portfolios held at the Centre to Prime Minister, he zoomed up the ladder, gaining rapidly in stature and popular appeal. Yet each tenure was cut short by what seemed an untenable clash between position and principle. His most dramatic exit was in November 1990. The Ayodhya conflagration imposed an impossible choice on Prime Minister Singh: he could keep his National Front Government if he accommodated the belligerence of the Hindutva party. He preferred to let his regime go down fighting on the floor of the Lok Sabha.

With the inner conflict came clarity and a political vision shaped by a growing understanding of India's complex social reality. The evolution was not to the liking of the media and the middle classes. As he was to tell Frontline in 1996: "I was the knight in shining armour [when he went full throttle against corruption in public life] ... But after Mandal, all my previous resignations, which they once praised, became `gimmicks.' Like B.C. and A.D., there is A.M. and P.M. Ante-Mandal and Post-Mandal." Subsequent events showed how wrongly he had been judged. Mandal unleashed an OBC revolution that changed the face of Indian politics. In State Assemblies and in Parliament, previously outnumbered backward caste legislators gained dominance. Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati ruled over U.P. The changes brought a new respect for `VP', by now fighting acute health problems. In 1990, his political friends abandoned him, accusing him of power-mongering; the media cast him as a villain. Six years later, they were to witness the incredible phenomenon of `VP', the obvious choice to head the United Front Government, going into hiding to avoid the honour. Mr. Singh has since fought several battles away from the public glare and always on the side of the disadvantaged. As always, politics for him is less about office than about public issues and concerns. Is itsurprising then that there should be so much buzz around his next move in U.P.?