ARJUN SINGH had diametrically opposite appraisals of the two prime ministers he worked with — PV Narasimha Rao and Rajiv Gandhi. He spoke often, not as a boast but by way of nostalgia, of the respect Rajiv accorded him. Rao’s suspicions of him were communicated in long silences. The following was the narrative he cherished most.
As soon as he became prime minister in October 1984, Rajiv’s first priority was to calm the Sikh rebellion in Punjab that had resulted in the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her own Sikh bodyguards. Within five months of his reign, Rajiv appointed Arjun as Punjab governor. The Rajiv-Sant Longowal accord strengthened the young prime minister’s trust in the former Madhya Pradesh chief minister.
For his political sagacity and negotiating skill, Arjun was further rewarded by Rajiv: he was made Congress executive vice-president in January 1986.
Remember, Rajiv had come to power on an unprecedented sympathy wave, obtaining a three-fourths majority in the Lok Sabha. The proximity that Arjun had to that kind of political power shielded him from scandals like his mishandling of the Bhopal gas tragedy, the Churhat lottery and sundry other cases. But plague him they did albeit later, particularly when Rajiv’s assassination in 1991 brought Rao to power.
Not only did Rao keep the Gandhi-Nehru family at a distance but he also devised ways to ‘contain’ a Congress heavyweight like Arjun.
For once, Rao blundered for altering the trend set by Indira Gandhi. At the Tirupati session of the Congress in 1992, he decided to have elections to the party’s highest body, the Congress Working Committee (CWC). On heaven knows- what calculations, Rao concluded that the All India Congress Committee delegates would reject CWC members he didn’t like. This, it was rumoured, was what godman Chandraswami had recommended.
The results shocked Rao. Beating every candidate by several lengths was Arjun, followed by Rajesh Pilot and Sharad Pawar. Rao’s political secretary Jitendra Prasada was also among the top five in terms of votes polled, but Brahmins, traditionally in controlling positions in the party, mostly lost.
The game had to be rubbed out. The elections were held null and void. No one has since mentioned the Congress’ shameful volte face, not even the Opposition.
In his political and social outlook, Arjun derived secular, democratic socialism from the Nehruvian tradition. But Rao was much more inclined to fall back on the advice of his other party colleague — K Karunakaran from Kerala, always willing to accommodate communal forces in the name of practical politics.
Arjun Singh’s politics was shaped in Madhya Pradesh where there was no multiplicity of parties to permit coalitions. It was a straight fight, an uncomplicated Kurukshetra between the Congress and the BJP.
All his political life, he fought the BJP tooth and nail. He had respect for historians like Romila Thapar and Prof Mushirul Hasan. Such was his trust in Hasan, when he was Vice-Chancellor of Jamia Millia Islamia, that Arjun gave him a virtual carte blanche to build as many institutions on the campus as he liked. Together, the two made Jamia into an international, cosmopolitan campus, retaining the secular spirit in which it was founded.
Arjun Singh was distressed at the way Rao handled the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid agitation in 1992. On 4 December 1992, I received a call from Arjun Singh. There was something urgent he wished to discuss. When I turned up at his 6, Race Course Road bungalow, he was waiting for me in the verandah. He said he had just returned from Ayodhya. “The arrangements to protect Babri Masjid are inadequate,” he said. “The structure could well be pulled down.”
On 6 December, Babri Masjid was demolished. Why was this being allowed to happen? I asked. Arjun’s long silence to my query deserves to be decoded.