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Arjun Singh: A Master Manipulator of Power Politics

New Delhi
Arjun Singh: A Master Manipulator of Power Politics
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+0553
A master manipulator of power politics, Arjun Singh was a one-time Congress bigwig who was known to set his eyes on the highest political throne but saw his political fortunes dwindle in the last decade and a half.

A strong votary of power politics, the veteran Thakur leader from Madhya Pradesh, has wielded power as Chief Minister of this central state, Governor of Punjab, Congress Working Committee (CWC) president, and a Union minister holding portfolios like HRD and Communications.

Arjun Singh, who speaks in a trademark slow-but-emphatic manner, always lived up to his image - an image based on his belief that politics is but the skill of manipulation. This skill, which he learnt quite early in his political career, has been the mainstay of his politics.

Arjun Singh, a firm believer that power can overcome many handicap, has blended this acumen with a characteristic that is no less important in Congress politics - utter loyalty to the Nehru-Gandhi clan. His quota plank, ostensibly to help out Rahul Gandhi in Uttar Pradesh, is a reflection of this line of thinking.

Donning a different role as the Governor of Punjab at the height of militancy, Singh was the architect behind the Rajiv-Longowal accord.

Arjun Singh's Downfall Began Post Death of Rajiv Gandhi

After the tragic mid-election death of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the Congress victory, he was among the frontrunners for the post of Prime Minister once Sonia Gandhi declined the party's call to enter politics.

This, however, was the beginning of Arjun Singh’s political downfall. An intense rivalry between him and Sharad Pawar saw Narasimha Rao eventually emerge as PM. And his protege Digvijaya Singh took over as Chief Minister of MP.

Although Arjun Singh's illustrious career ensured some effective political strategies, there were also several controversies that reared up, the most significant being his alleged role in the Churhat Lottery scandal of the 1980s during his tenure as MP Chief Minister.

Also was the Reservation Controversy regarding increase in caste-based reservation quotas for the OBCs (other backward castes) in reputed IITs, IIMs and other Central Government run institutes of higher studies, that faced severe criticism and opposition throughout the country, including from the National Knowledge Commission.

For weeks on end, the Congress' aging patriarch Arjun Singh had kept the party on tenterhooks with his silence on the 1984 Bhopal Gas Tragedy when he was the chief minister.

It was a party that had succeeded in keeping the Bhopal scrutiny off the role of its former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, but no one was sure how the sidelined Arjun Singh would react. Deprived of power, he was a politician given to high-stakes political theatre - reason enough for the chewing of nails within the Congress.

With the Bhopal Gas tragedy haunting him, Singh had sought to clear himself of complicity, while implicating his arch-rival late PV Narasimha Rao (the then Union Home Minister) in ordering the release of Union Carbide CEO Warren Anderson.

On the day of the Bhopal debate in the Rajya Sabha last year, he made a quiet entry on a wheel-chair and made a speech but not without its rhetorical flourishes. But when it ended, the party heaved a collective sigh of relief.

After the Babri Masjid demolition on December 6, 1992, Arjun Singh even attempted to overthrow Rao. He deployed an entire range of manipulative skills to that end, but the Congress stuck with Rao.

Not one to give up, Arjun Singh, sensing the coldness that had developed between Rao and Sonia Gandhi, started waxing nostalgic about the ‘secular leadership’ of the Nehru-Gandhi clan.

All this saw him leaving the Congress in 1995 to form his own party-with ND Tewari, an Uttar Pradesh party leader and another Congress stalwart.

In 1997, Arjun Singh maneuvered his way back into the Congress, once Sonia Gandhi began to take an active role in its affairs. He was playing loyalist again.

Manipulative victories could not, however, stop Arjun Singh's downward electoral slide, his MP bastion taken over by his protege Digvijaya Singh. Sonia Gandhi rewarded him for his loyalty, though, with a Rajya Sabha seat in 2001.

After the Congress' victory in May 2004, which saw Manmohan Singh become PM, Arjun Singh sniffed another opportunity. As HRD minister, he was seen attempting to play OBC quota politics again - perhaps to signal his value as a mass vote catcher, in contrast with the supposedly bureaucratic PM.

However, Manmohan Singh’s political instincts turned out to be sharper than anyone expected, and it proved impossible to play the Congress President against the PM. Things reached such a stage that Arjun Singh was seen as an irritant in the Cabinet, a man with his own agenda. He could not find a berth in UPA-II Cabinet in May 2009.

A man of few words, Singh cut his political teeth as an understudy of D P Mishra, often described as the 'Chanakya' and iron man of MP politics.

He is known to shower favours on his favourites and expects unflinching loyalty in return.

In 2006 when the rest of the political class was engaged in Assembly elections in five states, Singh dropped the quota bomb, forcing the hands of his alleged bete noire, the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the party.

Higher reservations for backward classes in educational institutes, he argues, is for the "emerging Congress leadership" (Rahul Gandhi) to help prepare the ground for a Congress return in a region where the party stands decimated. Arjun Singh believed that heir apparent Rahul needs a repackaged socio-economic agenda to translate public rallies into votes.

Some say Singh looked ahead. In 1991, when Rajiv Gandhi was killed and the clamour rose for Sonia's participation in politics, Singh was acutely aware that she was not even a a primary member of the Congress party.

He gave little thought to Sonia’s leadership qualities or her obvious unfamiliarity with the complexities of the political system. But the old Congressman thought he had the future all clearly etched out.

Propounded by a number of soothsayers, astrologers and babas, Arjun Singh was somewhat convinced that he has "raj yoga”. His spiritual guru, Ujjain-based Mauni (or the silent) Baba, is said to have immense control over Singh.

But in the last, Singh's fortunes had been on the decline. In his home state, he and his son Ajay are considered no-hopers.

During the P.V. Narasimha Rao regime, Singh fought a titanic battle with Rao, yet another 'Chanakya,' sacrificing his promising political career to become a die-hard Sonia loyalist in the hope that one day 'Madam' would recognise his devotion and worth. As a reward, he was hoping that she would make him the most powerful man in the country.

But May 22, 2004 came and went. Forced to take his steps with the help of a walking stick, Arjun Singh saw a much junior but straight-backed Manmohan Singh taking an oath of office and secrecy under the watchful eyes of Sonia Gandhi.

He was back as a minister of human resource development, an office that he had demitted amid much fanfare on December 24, 1994. Even in the breakaway Congress group that he joined, seasoned Narain Dutt Tiwari upstaged him. In MP, Congress (T), named after Tiwari, was addressed as Congress tinka (straw).

The years in the wilderness had taken their toll on him. At the personal front, too, things were not as good as they used to be. Family insiders say that his relations with his two sons were at an all-time low. The patriarch did not even get to attend the wedding of his grandson. In recent days, his constant attempts to draft daughter Veena Singh into politics had come to naught.

An ability to play courtier seems to have come instinctively to him. So charmed had been his approach that events which would have wrecked other political careers had seen Arjun Singh gain clout.

After the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, questions were raised about his closeness to the Union Carbide management. But he got away.

Then, as Punjab Governor during the state’s crisis phase, he escaped blame for the 1985 Rajiv-Longowal Accord, a flawed agreement of which he was a key architect.

The unwinding of the Accord led to a disastrous spiral of violence in Punjab, but he whistled his way out of the mess. Even charges of graft that surfaced in 1997 - the alleged diversion of funds from Churhat Lottery - did not injure Arjun Singh's position in the Congress.
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