SOON after his return from London, Vishwanath Pratap Singh removed himself to Gurgaon, far from the political hub of Lutyen's Delhi. His address and telephone number were disclosed to a select few, appointments grudgingly given and meetings held only during infrequent visits to his official residence in Delhi. For all that, V.P. Singh can hardly insulate himself from the political network. Leaders of all (secular) stripes have called on him to discuss the problematic political scenario: a truncated and faction-ridden Janata Dal, a less-than-cohesive United Front, a new-look, aggressive Congress and a formidable BJP within striking distance of South Block.
Singh has been discussing a theoretical prescription with visiting UF and Left leaders, including Andhra Pradesh chief minister and UF convenor Chandrababu Naidu: a tri-polar political scenario that calls for a tactical electoral understanding between the UF and the Congress against the BJP. Singh feels that all 'secular' parties, including the Left, would have to agree on seat adjustment in the Hindi heartland and in the west while maintaining a strategic distance from each other. Says he: "In our political debate, the importance of the opposition space is usually missed out. Therefore, when we speak of secular political forces, the focus is on their occupying the ruling political space. However, the threat to secularism is not over till the opposition space is also to a large extent shared by another secular force."
Which is why he emphasises the need for a tactical distance—rather than sharing of power—between the two secular forces, so that the opposition space is not gifted to the BJP. "In the larger interest, therefore, it is necessary that the UF and the Congress both be in good shape," he told Outlook. The success of this stratagem depends on a "strategic understanding that they will not attempt to divide or disintegrate each other, as has happened in the past. At the same time, they should not coalesce or appear the same".
Singh points out that the need for such an understanding is all the more urgent in the light of the BJP-BSP alliance in Uttar Pradesh: "If the tenuous BJP-BSP combine holds out, then it would sweep the state and lay the foundation for the BJP to capture power in Delhi. So the UF and the Congress should evolve a positive line to wean the BSP away from the BJP."
The former prime minister acknowledges that an understanding at an all-India level is out of the question, as the Left and regional parties—as well as the Janata Dal in Karnataka and Orissa—see the Congress as their principal foe in their respective states. Says he: "Let us understand contradictions in these areas and accept them so that an understanding can be reached in other states which would be acceptable to the regional parties and the Left." He suggests that state units independently work out electoral arrangements to "generate a political alchemy" to defeat the BJP.
In Gujarat, for instance, he has called for an understanding with chief minister Shankersinh Vaghela. As for distribution of seats, immense tact would be required. "As the arrangements are to be at the state level and for the purpose of elections only, the UF at the national level need not be unduly apprehensive," he adds, pointing out that the Left, TDP, DMK, TMC, AGP, SP and JD have all played an important role in keeping the BJP out of power.
Naidu and some sections of the Left and the JD have already reacted positively to Singh's suggestion. "There's nothing new about the formula. It has been talked about earlier and there is nothing wrong with it. In the south, we will fight the Congress. In the north, we will fight the BJP," said a senior UF leader from the south. However, Congress chief Sitaram Kesri has of late been critical of Singh; and while the two have not met, the leaders have reportedly discussed the subject over the telephone. The fact remains that Kesri functions under the shadow of Sonia Gandhi, who is deeply suspicious of the Rajiv-antagonistic former prime minister.
Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav is scarcely less so. Following the controversy over DMK leader M. Karunanidhi's strong plea for retaining Laloo Prasad Yadav's Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in the UF, reportedly at Singh's behest, Mulayam is said to have retorted: "London se bhi sajish kar raha hai (he is planning conspiracies even in London)." While Singh is keen on weaning the BSP away from the BJP, Mul-ayam, despite his own growing proximity to the Congress and Kanshi Ram distancing himself from the BJP, at the moment wants no part of a front which includes the BSP.
BUT Singh's worst critics are within his own party, the Janata Dal. Furious with his endorsement of Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral's handling of the Bihar crisis—which ended with a split in the party—JD MPs from Bihar rant against the "dhongi rajnetik sant" (fraud political saint). The party's national convention, they point out, raised the issue of maintaining an equal distance from the Congress and BJP and criticised Gujral's apparent proximity to the former. "We will never agree to such an alliance with the Congress," said an MP, dismissing Singh's suggestion out of hand.
Singh is clearly uncomfortable discussing the split in the JD. Curiously, JD MP Wasim Ahmed, his most ardent loyalist, chose to throw in his lot with the official party while Som Pal, another loyalist, joined the RJD. No wonder Ahmed says that one of Singh's priorities should be to resume his role as a ubiquitous bridge and "sort out the personal, regional and ideological differences within the UF and with supporting parties".
Given the challenges that beckon him, if the Raja of Manda finds any cause for satisfaction in the current political scenario, it is in the growing clout of the OBCs. The greatest revolution after Independence, he says, was the transfer of power in social terms. The loss of his government was a small political price for a "historical achievement". Even the BJP is now talking of social engineering. Asked about the Women's Reservation Bill, effectively stalled by that lobby, he feels that failing a consensus, the Bill and the proposed amendment allowing a quota for OBC women should be put to a conscience vote. "A democratic solution is best," he stresses.
But direct democratic involvement is out for now. Singh urgently needs a kidney transplant. Despite thousands of people having been tested, only one partial match has been found. However, having shaken off the constant fever which plagued him before treatment in London, he looks fitter and more buoyant than he has for years.