Vishwanath Pratap Singh was Prime Minister for less than a year, to be precise from December 2, 1989 to November 10, 1990. However, the two politically volatile actions he took within this short period — the decision to implement the Mandal Commission recommendations providing for reservation for backward classes, and decisive action against the communally disruptive rath yatra of Bharatiya Janata Party leader L.K. Advani — became watersheds in the history of independent India. Riding to power on an anti-corruption platform against the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress regime, which lost all legitimacy because of the Bofors scandal, V.P. Singh was at the head of a strange political experiment supported from the outside by the BJP as well as the Left parties. For a while, this Prime Minister theorised about politics being essentially about “managing contradictions.” But to his credit, instead of indulging in endless political compromises like Prime Ministers who came after him, he acted boldly and decisively against the communal politics of the BJP and had Mr. Advani arrested midway through his yatra. In his post-prime ministerial career, Mr. Singh worked tirelessly against the toxic communal politics of the BJP. He worked with the Left and mobilised issue-based support for his former party, the Congress. Mr. Singh was thus seen as a champion of both secularism and social justice, two defining principles of Indian politics.
Born on June 25, 1931, in a family rooted in the landed aristocracy, Mr. Singh climbed up the leadership rungs of the Congress and became Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh in 1980. He won countrywide attention by resigning two years later, accepting responsibility for his government’s failure to control dacoity in the Chambal valley. From then on, Mr. Singh cultivated for himself the image of a conscientious politician who was clean and ever ready to renounce power for a worthy cause. In deciding to implement the Mandal report, which was gathering dust for close to a decade, in the face of opposition from the BJP, Mr. Singh virtually wrote the death warrant for his government. In 1996, he came under pressure to take up the job of Prime Minister at the head of the United Front, an unstable post-election arrangement — and wisely ruled himself out of contention. He now revelled in the role of Citizen Singh. By that time, his health was failing and, in the last stage of his life, he bravely faced the challenges of multiple myeloma and renal failure. He continued to speak out, and on rare occasions act, on issues that mattered. India is poorer for the passing of an unorthodox political leader who gave primacy to democratic principles and progressive social values.