Agriculture, aviation and computer technology are sectors as similar as chalk, cheese and charcoal but Chaudhary Ajit Singh was equally at ease discussing nuances of each of these diverse fields, at times even within the same conversation. The 82-year-old former Union minister who succumbed to Covid-related complications at a Gurgaon hospital, on May 6, was often described simply as the son of India’s fifth Prime Minister, the late Chaudhary Charan Singh. Singh never complained about this description and the added insinuation that came with it of him being just another dynast in the country’s political landscape. Yet, his relatively short political inning of 35 years was a testament to the many talents he had, political, social, and personal, many of which were, unfortunately, overshadowed by the towering legacy of his father and to some extent his own inability or unwillingness to step out this shadow.
Born in Meerut’s Bhadola village to Chaudhary Charan Singh and Gayatri Devi on February 12, 1939, Singh was the first Indian politician who could flaunt degrees from the Indian Institute of Technology (Kharagpur) and the Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago (USA) as well as a 15-year-stint as a computer scientist who had worked in America with companies like IBM much before a majority of Indians were introduced to the wonders of the computer.
Singh was in his late 40s when he returned to India to support his ailing father only to realise that his promising career in the then-booming computer industry was now history. With the senior Chaudhary’s health failing and his hold over Lok Dal – the party he had founded in 1980 – weakening, Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna and Mulayam Singh Yadav had hoped to appropriate the former prime minister and UP’s tallest farmer leader’s legacy. The Jats of Western UP, particularly those in districts like Meerut, Muzaffarnagar and Baghpat, who had always stood by Charan Singh rallied behind Ajit Singh and urged him to take control of the party instead of letting its reins pass over to a backward caste (Yadav) or Brahmin (Bahuguna).
In July 1986, at 47 years of age, Ajit Singh made his political debut as a newly sworn-in Rajya Sabha member. Eight months later, in March 1987, Singh proved to be a politician worthy of claiming his father’s legacy when he outmanoeuvred Bahuguna, Mulayam – both seasoned politicians who already had many years of power politics behind them – when he unilaterally replaced Mulayam as the leader of the Lok Dal-dominated Opposition in the Uttar Pradesh assembly with his confidante Satyapal Singh Yadav. In the process, Singh also caused a split in the Lok Dal; announcing the formation of the Lok Dal (Ajit) to which Bahuguna and Mulayam shot back with the formation of their own group – the Lok Dal (Bahuguna). It is a different matter that in later years, Ajit and Mulayam would often join forces to defeat their political rivals at the hustings and the same camaraderie is now seen between their sons, Jayant Chaudhary and Akhilesh Yadav.
Charan Singh died in May 1987 and with his demise the appellation he had been identified with in India’s political landscape – Chaudhary saheb – as well as the hold he had over the Western UP Jats passed on to Ajit Singh. Singh then joined hands with the Janata Party, becoming its president in 1988, before the Janata Party too merged with the Janata Dal in 1989 with Singh becoming its secretary general. Singh made his Lok Sabha debut in the 1989 general elections, comfortably winning the Baghpat seat his father had represented.
In the decades that followed, while Singh failed to expand the footprint of his party or his own political influence beyond the few Jat-dominated districts of Western UP, his wily political machinations ensured that he was courted with equal zeal by every political party that hoped to rule Uttar Pradesh or even come to power at the Centre in an era that saw coalition governments replacing single party rule. The mild-mannered and soft-spoken Singh used his political wits to pre-empt the changing mood of India’s electorate, an instinct that he mastered much before Ram Vilas Paswan appropriated the title of ‘political weather-wane’. In UP, he shifted his alliances with the BSP, SP, BJP and the Congress with just as much ease as he walked in and out of the NDA or the UPA alliances at the Centre.
Between 1989 and 2009, Singh returned to the Lok Sabha seven times (including one by-election victory in 1997 after resigning as a Congress MP in September 1996), losing only one election from Baghpat in this period – to the BJP’s Sompal Shastri. Singh served as a Union minister in governments led by different political parties. He was the Union Industries Minister in the VP Singh-led National Front government between December 1989 and November 1990 but walked out of the ruling coalition and the Janata Party to join the Congress party. He briefly returned to the Union cabinet led by then prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao as the Union Food Minister between February 1995 and May 1996. While he won the 1996 general election on a Congress ticket, he resigned from the party and the Lok Sabha within months to float his own party – the Bharatiya Kisan Kamgar Party – and returned to the Lok Sabha in a by-election in February 1997.
In 1999, Singh relaunched his party as the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) and returned to the Lok Sabha. In the 2001 UP Assembly polls, the RLD allied with the BJP which enabled his entry into the NDA and earned Singh a place in the Vajpayee cabinet with the plum agriculture portfolio that he held between July 2001 and May 2003. Like all his previous dalliances with other parties, Singh’s alliance with the BJP didn’t last long either. In May 2003, amid rumours of his differences with the BJP and that Vajpayee was considering to either drop him from the Union cabinet or shift him to an ‘unimportant’ ministry, Singh quit the NDA.
Though he managed to win his Baghpat constituency again in the 2004 and 2009 general elections, Singh did not return to the Union cabinet until December 2011 when he was sworn-in as the Civil Aviation minister in the Manmohan Singh-led UPA-II cabinet. Singh’s shift towards the Congress and the RLD’s subsequent entry into the UPA was, however, indicative of his ability to clinch political pacts that served him well in the short term. Ahead of the no-confidence vote against the UPA government in 2008 over the controversial Indo-American Nuclear Deal, the Congress’s crisis managers were reaching out to all political parties who weren’t allied to the BJP and weren’t as rigidly opposed to the deal as the Left parties which had been instrumental in installing the UPA in power in 2004 through external support.
The RLD then had just three MPs in the Lok Sabha but their support was crucial for the UPA to survive the trust vote. Singh demanded that Lucknow’s Amausi airport be renamed Chaudhary Charan Singh airport immediately – a proposal to this effect had been pending for several years. The Union cabinet cleared the proposal pronto. Curiously though, in the 2009 general elections, Singh allied with the BJP-led NDA to return to the Lok Sabha for the last time. Two years later, he broke away and walked into the UPA in December 2011 to secure a union cabinet berth for himself for the fourth and final time. As Union aviation minister, Singh struggled with the challenge of improving the financial health of cash-strapped Air India, albeit with little success. However, he never declined requests for interviews on predictably tough questions on the subject and would often candidly admit to the many problems he faced on the Air India issue. In free-wheeling conversations, he would speak at length about the need to improve air connectivity for smaller towns and cities, rattle out figures with amazing ease before suddenly shifting to other diverse subjects – from books, to sugarcane farming to the latest computer gadgets and travel destinations.
The decimation of the UPA and the rise of Narendra Modi’s BJP since 2014, however, marginalised Ajit Singh and his party, both in UP and in national politics. Singh and his son, Jayant Chaudhary, lost their Baghpat and Mathura seats respectively in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and their party drew a blank too. The result, Singh believed, was a reflection of the deep communalisation of politics in western UP that the BJP had succeeded in achieving since the communal riots that wreaked havoc in and around Muzzafarnagar in 2013. In the years after 2014, Singh tried to revive his party electorally but with little success.
Ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the RLD joined with the ‘mahagathbandhan’ with Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party and Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party – both parties he had allied with in the past and had bitter fallouts with. The grand alliance fell flat against the might of the BJP and the RLD scored a zero again. A victory in the 2019 Lok Sabha poll was also crucial for Singh for another reason. He had decided to contest the election not from his traditional Baghpat seat but from Muzaffarnagar. He had told this writer then that this was the last time he was entering the poll fray and he wanted to use it to not just to avenge the 2014 defeat but also to bring communal harmony back to the Jats and Muslims of Muzaffarnagar.
There were, of course, other factors – more personal than political – that guided Singh’s shift to Muzaffarnagar. Chaudhary Charan Singh had lost a bitterly fought Lok Sabha poll from Muzaffarnagar in 1971. Ever since, the party had never succeeded in winning the seat. After the 2013 riots, Singh assiduously tried to woo voters cutting across caste and religious lines in Muzaffarnagar, constantly invoking the memory of his late father. His public meetings in Muzaffarnagar and adjoining districts often witnessed dramatic scenes of members of the Jat community breaking down, regretting that they had deserted ‘Chhote Chaudhary sahib’ in recent years. For Singh, the 2019 polls were a time to reclaim his legacy but he was trounced by BJP’s Sanjeev Balyan, losing by a narrow margin of just 3782 votes.
Singh had largely been out of public glare since his last Lok Sabha defeat and the RLD’s leadership baton had passed on to his son, Jayant Chaudhary, for all practical purposes. However, the Centre’s controversial farm laws and the massive outrage among farmers against these legislations provided Singh with a chance to revive his party. In the overarching solidarity among farmers of different castes and communities, Singh also saw a chance to bridge the divide created between the Jats and Muslims since the 2013 riots. Jayant had told this reporter earlier this year of his father’s attempt to bring leaders of the two communities on a common stage to them hug each other and to forget the mistakes of the past to build a better, peaceful future together. The massive kisan mahapanchayats that the RLD organised to protest against the farm laws had once again endeared Chaudhary saheb to his voters and the party’s impressive victories against BJP-backed candidates in the recently concluded panchayat polls in Mathura were a sure sign of the RLD’s revival. Chaudhary Ajit Singh, though, couldn’t live to see the turnaround.