Politics Reviews

‘The Disruptor: How Vishwanath Pratap Singh Shook India’ review: Mandalites and their reluctance to invoke V.P. Singh’s legacy

Literary Review

Literary Review

At the very start of this eminently readable biography of former prime minister V.P. Singh, author Debashish Mukerji states that the commemoration of this particular prime minister of India has not been a project of any political party otherwise engaged in a tussle on icons and their legacy. Not even a stamp has been released in V.P. Singh’s memory, a shocking oversight considering how his actions impacted the political and social history of contemporary India.

While, as Mukerji states, it is obvious that the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress would have no interest since V.P. Singh managed to rile both the parties, it is surprising that Singh’s inheritors, the so-called ‘Mandalites’ like Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Prasad Yadav, who headed governments in two of the most politically significant States in India — Uttar Pradesh and Bihar — have been strangely reluctant to invoke his legacy or mark it in any way.

Astute politician

The biography, intensely researched and undoubtedly enriched by Singh’s own recorded interviews for the archives of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, provides a good picture of V.P. Singh as a person, who was a bit awkward in social interactions, part idealistic, part shrewd reader of political tea leaves. His early years, when he was adopted by the royal family of Manda, is lonely and leads to a problematic relationship with his father that persists through his life.

Singh’s political enterprise, the Janata Dal party he helped found, and the National Front government he headed, was a conglomeration of strong personalities, with well documented fallouts among the main players.

Behind the scenes

Any biography of V.P. Singh has to deal with the whys and wherefores of the biggest decision he made as prime minister and one which has had a lasting impact on Indian politics — announcing the implementation of the recommendations of the Mandal Commission report.The book does not disappoint with regard to what went on behind the scenes of that decision, and presents interesting insights on how, even while high minded idealism may have propelled the decision, the timing of it was largely informed by the face-off between Singh and his colleague, former deputy prime minister in his government, Devi Lal.

There are claims, on record by Singh’s then Cabinet colleague Sharad Yadav, that the final push for announcing the move came from him and a couple of others.

The enduring mystery of course is why V.P. Singh, the author of the OBCfication of Indian politics and public life, never got enough credit for it or was not lauded even by those who built their political careers around Mandal politics.

‘Friendship of porcupines’

Some hints are given in the description of the way personal differences between various players in the once powerful socialist bloc of Indian politics came in the way of any consolidated political legacy being institutionalised. What former BJP ideologue K.N. Govindacharya once told me was the friendship of porcupines, of belonging to the same species but liable to sting with quills if theydrew too close. Whatever be the case, V.P. Singh’s own disillusionment and decision to retire despite the Supreme Court upholding his decision on the implementation of the Mandal Commission report (Mukerji quotes him as saying “I am like a rocket that burns away after putting the satellite in orbit”), put an end to his political career. He kept away from holding office even when the United Front government went looking for a prime ministerial face, hiding out till the choice finally evolved around then Karnataka Chief Minister H.D. Deve Gowda. His death during the Mumbai terror attacks of 2008 went largely without an eulogy or even an assessment of his legacy.

Mukerji himself acknowledges that the book is an attempt to redress that lack, but here he is being modest. This life history of V.P. Singh also illuminates through its telling, how Indian politics was turned on its head, due to those brief months between 1989 and 1990.

The Disruptor: How Vishwanath Pratap Singh Shook India ; Debashish Mukerji, HarperCollins, ₹699.


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Printable version | May 16, 2022 3:09:50 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/the-disruptor-how-vishwanath-pratap-singh-shook-india-review-mandalites-and-their-reluctance-to-invoke-vp-singhs-legacy/article64825681.ece