May 25, 2020
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Villain No. 10: Arjun Singh

In classic doublespeak, when asked by a scribe if the Rajiv Gandhi assassination could become an election issue, Singh said no.

Villain No. 10: Arjun Singh
When future historians analyse the runup to the 1998 general elections, they will find that a hapless Congress was guided willy-nilly by Arjun Singh’s utterances, always in the name of Shrimati Sonia Gandhi, to take the plunge.

In a party that is clinging tenuously, desperately to its last recognised symbol—the Gandhi surname—Singh’s mastery of the art of surviving on the greasy Congress totem-pole was there for all to see through much of 1997.

And for one whose political life’s stated mission is to find the killers of one Gandhi (Rajiv), and for one whose reputation is built around being the suspected eyes and ears of another (Sonia), for Singh the Jain Commission report couldn’t have come at a more opportune time.

Stung after ending up a poor third in his own backyard, Satna, in the ’96 general elections, despite harbouring prime ministerial ambitions, and aware of his own strength—backroom manoeuvring, not activism—Singh spent considerable time at the Commission and set about exploiting Congressmen’s traditional weakness.

He managed to collect some papers and documents, reportedly vital intercepts stating the time and date of the Sriperumbudur hit, in an effort to whip up a frenzy. But security agencies proved smarter. They ensured nobody got anything crucial. Singh’s desperation now knew no bounds. He started demanding action against officials for "lapses" leading to the killing; then put the blame squarely on the doorsteps of Chandra Shekhar and V.P. Singh. And when even that didn’t stick, he insisted on the removal of the DMK from the UF government.

From there to the election post was a natural progression for Singh who had been savvy enough to jump on to the Jain Commission bandwagon after it was set up in 1992. Of course, claiming to represent the interests of 10, Janpath. Sonia’s disinclination to comment on anything beyond the ambit of the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation suited him just fine.

Along the way, he saw in it the potential to resuscitate his own tottering career. He quit the cabinet in December 1994 in protest against the Nara-simha Rao government’s decision to do away with the Jain Commission. When Sonia Gandhi alleged in 1996 that the government was not doing enough to find Rajiv’s killers, Singh was quick to grab the bait. Since then he has let loose an endless series of posers, embarrassing successive Congress-supported governments, and baying for the collective blood of all perceived as politically inconvenient.

But has Singh’s wiliness really paid off? Did he play his cards right when he insisted on the Congress withdrawal of support to the United Front? Already Congressmen are deserting their party on the eve of elections—some like Mamata are even willing to align with the once-"untouchable" BJP.

Singh’s great unsaid promise of getting Sonia to campaign does not seem to have worked out, except for choruses from veteran Congressmen "calling upon Soniaji’’ to lead the party. If the initial responses are anything to go by, the party seems to be in real trouble. Singh’s propensity to wake up late in a political crisis is well known. In the Babri demolition case, he realised the gravity of the situation two months after the incident.

Hard practitioner of realpolitik, Singh isn’t giving up. He’s keen to keep the BSP candidate out of Satna during the polls. He’s been working hard on Kanshi Ram without breaking much ground. In classic doublespeak, when asked by a scribe if the Rajiv Gandhi assassination could become an election issue, Singh said no.

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