The social dominance of the political class is, arguably, a tragedy. However, this state of affairs is rendered bearable for the educated middle class by the fact that this dominant political class is to a significant extent composed of individuals who are soothingly, reassuringly contemptible. Their accents are deplorable, their origins lie clearly on the wrong side of the railway tracks, their bearing and demeanour proclaim their social and cultural inferiority. So, even as 'we' suffer their political dominance—i.e. are kicked about by them—we console ourselves by regarding them with Brahminical disdain. Singh compounds his offensiveness by breaking even this secret rule of our constitutional game—he refuses to be contemptible.
He is transparently honest. He has occupied all kinds of high office—chief minister, finance minister, defence minister, prime minister. And all kinds of attempts have been made to smear his reputation—but the mud simply won't stick. The family residence in the Allahabad Cantonment is neglected in a fashion that even the sidekick of a municipal ward politician would refuse to tolerate: no special roads, no lights, not even a decent coat of whitewash. Even when he has been the object of nasty attacks—not only from his erstwhile colleagues in the Congress, all honourable men no doubt, but also from Mulayam Singh Yadav—his response has always been civilised and dignified. Insistent on what he believes to be the truth in his level, slightly nasal voice.
Now, ever the risk-taker, he has published a volume of poems: Ek Tukra Dharti: EkTukra Aakash. It would have been nice if the poems had carried some indication regarding their dates of composition—but his editorial modesty precludes the possibility of any such apparatus. Attic refuse, he calls it, the accumulated debris of a wandering, public life. Not surprisingly, many of the poems turn on the perception of the dilemmas and finally the vanity of power: Zindagi/samachar ban gayi/ab main jeeta nahin/sirf chhapta hoon... (My life is now a mere news item. I don't live anymore, I'm just published...).
One fine poem speculates on the origins of the evil ones, the rakshasas. He postulates an alternative cosmic principle—that of ennui, of the transcendental, cosmic boredom of the ksheer-sagar. It is in order to escape that boredom that the gods create the rakshasas so that they may then create the pretext for their own escape from the Milky Ocean—a-demon-killingwe'll go. For how long can the gods, he asks, put up with the indolence of perfection: Purnta ki is nishkriyta ko/bhag -wan bhi kab tak jhelen.
There is much lively play with the resources of ordinary language. Thus, one poem turns on the domestic, even culinary contrast between two kinds of mashed potatoes, the bland bharta and the sharp chokha. Another, rather more serious poem, plays with the resonances of kaalikh—soot, darkness—which, with a little stretching, yields kaal-likh, epoch-writer, even Fate.
Is he a great poet? Almost certainly not. Is he a poet? Unquestionably yes. Not merely in the minimal sense that he has published a book with tiny rivulets of words meandering through generous white margins—the staple of vanity publishing and culturally ambitious housewives. It is a little unnerving to think that all the while that he held important political positions, at the centre of the forbidding rituals of power, mouthing fatuities and smiling inane smiles in the prescribed manner, behind that facade of powerful mediocrity, he continued to be a human being with a sharp eye for the particular, with a poet's ability to shift perspectival gears, an attentiveness to the glimmerings of the cosmos—the eternal truths, the long perspectives—in everyday humble things.
It's positively scandalous.