The demure Raja who stirred up a storm
My first emotion after passing the high security gates and several rounds of thorough frisking into the confines of the former Prime Minister V P Singh’s residence was, well, one of shock.
The entire complex, outside and inside the expansive walls, was so spartan. Something close to a government run guest house. The nearly bare rooms, the creaky brown printed sofas, mismatched blue vases did not befit as dwellings for a former Prime Minister, especially one of royal lineage.
There was a strange sort of synthesis in the way the man appeared to me at the first glance and the place where he resided. Both looked gaunt. Obviously, the man, who had once been one of the most controversial personalities of the country, was not keeping very good health. It was showing. And his casual attire illustrated that he nearly didn’t care. His white kuta-pajama was blanketed by loosely fitted woolen pheren and along with it he wore his typical cap, with which we had become all so familiar when he held the country’s reins for about a year in 1989-90.
He took all questions, soft, hard, and sometimes blistering, with the same type of monotone, a strange cadence in elocution that betrayed no emotion, though his face was not entirely expressionless.
The former Raja of Manda was nonchalant about his accidental entry into Uttar Pradesh politics as Chief Minister: “If I was imposed on UP, then UP was equally forced on me.” He did though derive some advantage from this association of serendipity. He admitted his years in the state brought him closer to people and prepared him for the big stage.
Extremely earnest to prove his record of unblemished and rare rectitude in politics, V P Singh did not mince words when describing his years with the Congress in general and Rajiv Gandhi in specific.
On Corruption: HDW/Bofors
The assassination of Indira Gandhi, he felt, was the turning point after which stumbled out skeletons of financial irregularities. The trend he suspected continued till much after.
The former Congressman attributed his exit from the country’s oldest party not to the shrill issue of Bofors, as media had misconstrued it to be, but the HDW submarine deal.
When as the Defence Minister in Rajiv Gandhi’s cabinet, he asked the German Prime Minister why they couldn’t reduce the prices for the aquatic vessels, he is believed to have told Singh “that a 7% commission was to be paid to an Indian agent”.
However, when V P Singh reported the matter to Rajiv Gandhi, he alleged he could not evince much response from him for an investigation, and so the deal became the main thorn in their relations.
Unremorseful about his actions and dissevering of his 26-year association with the Congress, he continued, “When I had made up my mind to leave, I thought I may as well pull down some curtains.”
Bofors, he said, came to light much later and exposed the government completely. Thus he stood vindicated.
On Rajiv Gandhi assassination and Jain inquiry
V P Singh refused to be drawn into the argument that it may have been his vindictiveness that finally cost Rajiv Gandhi his life. He refuted completely the findings of the Jain Commission report into the assassination of the former PM that pointed to the inadequate security cover around the young leader before falling victim to the human bomb Dhanu.
“Rajiv Gandhi enjoyed full security during my regime. He went to Tamil Nadu eight times when I was the Prime Minister, and he never received even a scratch. It was when the state was under President’s Rule and the security was under the Governor, who was a Congressman, that the incident took place. ”
“In fact it was a Congress worker who had escorted Dhanu to Rajiv Gandhi,” he clarified refusing to take onus for even a speck of the peccadillo.
V P Singh remained as unruffled and unapologetic when we came to the most contentious Mandal issue.
Rejecting it to be a case of political opportunism, he said that because the issue shook the foundations of the Indian society, he faced “all kinds of criticism”. But that Mandal reflected “real change that brought about the empowerment of Dalits”.
Not once did he mention that he regretted the loss of some lives or the disappointment among a vast many, who felt this to be a sort of regressive methodology in addressing a long standing problem of inequality.
On Third Front
V P Singh also kept faith in the Third Alternative as it represented “unity in diversity” and felt the national parties were but “artificial monoliths”.
He felt that just because regional parties had joined hands to stake claim at the national level, it did not mean that they were too trapped in the vicissitudes of provincial politics to have a national vision.
Hinting at the fate his own government had met, he said that the regional parties had in fact shown greater vision in providing greater stability to governments at the Centre unlike the main parties which believed in pulling the rug if it suited their interests.
On his irrelevance
All through the interview V P Singh spoke with only semi-detached engagement, as if at pains to find his place in the annals of India. Despite our pressing, he never really announced that he planned to retire.
But everything around him spoke of it to be so. The media stopped speaking of him; there were more incendiaries to report about. His own disposition seemed almost reconciled to the bitter truth.
The reclusive Raja had invited me to visit his painting studio. He was keeping himself occupied penning poetry or experimenting with the brush.
He displayed some delight as he exhibited his creations to me. Some made of water colours, others with oil, and yet many more with natural ingredients like flower petals and grains. There was almost a subtle childlike excitement when he shoved aside his shoes and squatted on the bare, cold floor displaying his tools like a child shows his toys.
So when the cruel question came: whether he felt himself to be irrelevant today; I discerned a tinge of hurt in his eye. But he recovered fast.
“I don’t see and aspire…or even want to be relevant. If I can today be relevant in another sense, through my art and paintings, it will give me much greater satisfaction,” he concluded bravely.
He had once written about his own state and life:
“The visual always fascinated me. As I grew up, I slowly realized that we not only see through our eyes, but also from the heart. Feeling is living. Beauty is understanding.
I was overwhelmed by the harmony of creation. My youth was one rapturous communion with nature.
The ecstasy is gone but fragments of its memory, still, at times, shimmer, to give a sudden insight. My paintings are such fragments. Yes, they are fragments because my life is so. - V P Singh
I felt, if anything, he spoke the truth here. And when his last remains would have merged with the elements of nature, he would have at last found completeness, which he so earnestly searched for nearing the end of his life.