The appellation of ‘PM in Waiting’ is so often used to refer to L K Advani, that our generation has forgotten that there was another political heavyweight in the Congress, who once nurtured the ambition to hold the top executive post.
Clever as a fox and loyalist to the boot, Arjun Singh was a man of all seasons and many reasons when it came to Indian politics. I met him for the first time when the Congress was in shambles and he was busy rebuilding his position within the party after his bete noire Narasimha Rao had been sidelined to the point of becoming irrelevant.
It was right before the assembly elections of Madhya Pradesh in September 1998. His house in Delhi Road was thronged by ticket aspirants. There was such a huge crowd that it was difficult to even squeeze our way to the main premises.
Because we had approached him through a close contact of his, we were granted an appointment. Arjun Singh was late and we were kept waiting in his garden. Such was his snob value.
I returned to his house later soon after the elections were over. The Congress had lost in MP and his house wore a deserted look. Not even a dog was straying around. Such is the reality of politics and Arjun Singh was an old hand at the game.
Originally belonging to Rewa and one of the few CM’s at that time to have completed a five-year term in Madhya Pradesh, Arjun Singh was considered one of the blue-eyed boys of the Gandhi family.
It was no surprise then that he was handpicked by Rajiv Gandhi to take over as Governor of Punjab at a time when the state was going though one of its toughest phases in history.
This was in 1985. The anti-Sikh riots had ravaged the psyche of the Sikh population and Rajiv Gandhi was being viewed as a villain.
At that time Congress had won a second term in Madhya Pradesh and Arjun Singh came to Delhi to consult with Rajiv on the list of cabinet ministers.
He told us, “That afternoon as we went through the list of MP cabinet probable’s, when Rajiv Gandhi said that he had some other serious work with me. ‘I need your help’ he said.” The young Prime Minister then told him that as Punjab was the top promise in the Congress manifesto, the flames there had to be doused first. And Arjun Singh would have to be the man, who would help him achieve his mission.
“I should have thought of ten excuses on why I would not be able to go. But I could not. I just blurted out my acceptance, asking him when I would be required to move.”
In three days time Singh was on his way to the restive state. Luckily, he made a success of it and will be remembered as the man, who helped cobble the Rajiv-Longowal Accord.
“The turning point was when Sant Harcharan Longowal was persuaded to visit Delhi to meet Rajiv. It certainly had a positive impact on the Rajiv Gandhi’s image.”
Arjun Singh struck down criticism about why the accord could not hold and revealed that everyone was on board including Prakash Singh Badal, but he didn’t want to be seen as having truck with the Congress for political reasons.
Arjun Singh had also warned Narasimha Rao about the possible outcome of the Babri controversy. “The moment BJP made religion a political plank and starting using Ayodhya as a tool to mobilise the Hindu vote, I knew the movement would culminate in the demolition of the mosque. I was a whistleblower on the issue, but the PM misjudged my intentions and turned a deaf ear.”
Later, after the Mumbai riots, Singh was among the first to ask for a committee to be constituted into the violence. “The Vohra Committee was constituted in 1993 but no minister of cabinet knew of its report. The findings were submitted to the Home Ministry and buried there. No one knew such a report even existed,” he told us.
“Only later, when the issue was brought up in Parliament, the report came to light. But this was in 1995, two years after its submission!”
The differences with Narasimha Rao slowly accentuated to a point of no return. “It was the issue of internal elections of the Congress which proved to be the final straw. Finally, elections were held in the Tirupati session but a perception was being built that we were forming a parallel power centre in the party.”
Arjun Singh joined hands with ND Tiwari and left the party. He returned to the Congress when the Narasimha Rao era ended and Sonia announced her decision to join active politics.
When Congress reclaimed power in 2004, Arjun Singh was disappointed that Sonia chose Dr Manmohan Singh as the prime ministerial candidate and remained his critic till the end. His stint as HR minister in UPA I was more in news over reservation protests than constructive contribution.
Suffering from prolonged illness, Arjun Singh was slowly fading from public life and memory. Not only was he not a part of the UPA II cabinet, his daughter Veena Singh was refused a Congress ticket in MP. She fought as an independent from Sidhi constituency but lost.
On the day he died, a revamped CWC was announced. Arjun Singh had been dropped.