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The Lonely Punter: V.P.Singh

By Farzana Versey

29 November, 2008

He chose the wrong time to die. His timing was often bad. V.P.Singh, former Prime Minister of India, gave up the fight against several ailments that should have killed him 15 years ago on November 28. He was 77.

It was the wrong time because newspapers and the electronic media are covering the horrendous terrorist attacks in Mumbai. VP was not the kind to exit quietly; the Rajput in him cherished a bit of pomp and glory. To his credit, it constituted the superficial aspect, like a garment. It did not as much as scrape his skin, forget enter his soul.

As I scoured a couple of reports, the comments sections threw up the worst invectives. “He was a devil.” “The world will be better without him.” “Thank god he is dead.”

This was a bit surprising. He has been out of active politics for several years; there is no way he would have been able to return. But the impact of his credo and its implementation have had far-reaching consequences.

Before I had even met him for the first time in the year 2000, I had written with insouciance (or intuition?) a column titled, “The VP I Know”. Serendipity had worked. He turned out much like the multi-layered man whose mind I had probed. Yet, I might add, I was hesitant to broach the subject of an interview, and later a book. Was it the masks peeling that bothered me?

He was always imprisoned by his conscience, yet he did make compromises for public consumption. They accused him by saying, “His self-righteous posturing is a cover so dexterously used by him to pursue his ambition, to hog the limelight by any means.” His response was: “I do not know why everybody says that I am after power. If I were after power, I would have accepted it in 1996 when so many leaders came to my residence asking me to become prime minister.”

In the Ifs and Buts that have punctuated his existence, he traversed too many paths, and stopped at a few.

Both success and failure happened to him at around the same time and with equal intensity and often for similar reasons. He came to power as Prime Minister on the strength of a principle and he lost it in a no-confidence motion against the same ideology; electoral politics failed him, but he was the man they looked to as the Third Force. As Finance Minister in Rajiv Gandhi’s cabinet, he made bold to arrest some of the business bigwigs, but it was the very segment that looked down on his ‘classless’ agenda that began rushing to buy his paintings. The zamindar who gave away all his land was fighting for the rights of the farmers. The man who had, in his first ever trip as PM, walked barefoot to Amritsar, Punjab, to “add a healing touch” was to be held responsible for so many immolations due to his steadfast execution of the Mandal Report for the backward classes.

This will remain a benchmark by which he will be judged. It transformed the maverick into the ultimate villain. Until the end he continued to stand by what will go down as one of the most profound revolutions in contemporary history, which is why no political party is ditching it, not even the rightwing Hindutva ones.

It was Lyndon Johnson who said, “If you’re in politics and you can’t tell when you walk into a room who’s for you and who’s against you, then you’re in the wrong line of work.”

V.P.Singh has been called the Machiavelli of Indian politics. That this comes from seasoned commentators and contemporaries is confounding. What struck me most was his naiveté. He was like someone in a coal mine who suddenly finds a diamond and starts exulting over it. He begins to seriously believe that it is possible to repeat the feat, so he will dig into the black soot again.

After 15 years of genuine involvement in farmers’ and slumdwellers’ issues, he decided to start a political party in 2006. Out-of-work political wannabes heralded him as a mythological hero: Lord Krishna. This ought to have been comic, but some senior politicians took it seriously enough to call him a dhongi (fake). Not only was this his worst career move, it could possibly wipe out a lot of the work he has done outside the political arena.

He remained unfazed. He gave me the standard line, “I believe whoever is in power, people should fight the establishment over issues. This is the weakness of our democracy. We vote, then for five years we remain dormant. The farmers’ movement will remain but we need a formal political party to fight elections.”

It was one more compromise. This time to accommodate the needs of others. “Their argument was that no one comes here to sit with prayer beads, they all have ambitions and if they are not fulfilled, they go away,” he said.

Between political expediency and historical relevance, what would he choose? “While politics is the art of the possible, history is the art of the impossible. I have never hesitated in attempting the impossible. What is historically relevant may not be politically prudent. One has to make one’s choices. I made mine. It is for you to judge.”

Could he see through things? He has been called the most complete politician and, “the Houdini of Indian politics, because he creates the illusion of escaping from the hurly burly of ‘dirty politics’ without actually leaving the stage”.

At some point of time the desire for social recognition stealthily crept in and with it started the hunt for social approval. The inner joy was bartered for outer applause. Beneath the mask of worldly success he hid even from himself. He found a way out in poetry and painting, both of which he continued doing in the hospital bed where he spent every alternate day in dialysis. He lived in effect for 15 days each month. And he lived it with a silent fury.

For one with such strong convictions, he sometimes gave the impression of spreading himself too thin. Was he trying to as brand himself with various names so that he could find that broken link to himself? Did he come to terms with his different personae?

“No, I have not been able to reconcile them. It is, perhaps, because of the conflict of the different approvals the different persona demand. The political personality survives in no small measure on approval of others. The creative personality needs an emotional seal. The ethical one ordains the approval of one’s conscience. I have not been able to integrate them.”

The ashes that will rest in the urn will finally give him that solace.

Farzana Versey is a Mumbai-based author-columnist. She is currently completing the biography of V.P.Singh. Her more personal reminiscences can be accessed at

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