Good bye Arjun Singh
Arjun Singh was one of the most controversial politicians of our times. There were people who liked him or hated him but one thing was sure that no one could ignore him. I visited his house on Akbar Road to attend a prayer meeting in his memory on Saturday (March 26). It was indeed a trip down the memory lane and I recalled my several meetings with him during the 25-26 years since I got to know him first while he was the Governor of Punjab. Singh had been asked to take over the assignment within days of his re-election as the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh in 1985 and the reluctant politician had to bow to the wishes of then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
His proximity to the Gandhi family was well known and his appointment as the CM for the first time was in 1980 principally because late Sanjay Gandhi prevailed upon his mother to give this Rajput leader a chance to steer the state. Arjun Singh was very close to Maneka Gandhi’s family and therefore had become close to Sanjay as well. It was the time when Sanjay had decided to give the Rajputs a chance in the Congress and had decided to make the Brahmins who were the favourites of the Gandhis till then to wait on the sidelines. If Arjun Singh got Madhya Pradesh, Vishwanath Pratap Singh got UP. Shortly after VP Singh gave up his position, Veer Bahadur Singh got a chance. In Himachal Pradesh, another stalwart, Virbhadra Singh, eventually replaced Thakur Ram Lal.
Though they were all Thakurs, they always held Arjun Singh in very high esteem. That way Arjun Singh was the Thakur of the Thakurs.
At his prayer meeting, a large number of Congress leaders as well as those belonging to other parties showed up. There was Sonia Gandhi and her PS, Vincent George considered very close to the late leader. There was Virbhadra Singh, Janaradhan Dwivedi, Ashwani Kumar, Motilal Vora and of course Makhan Lal Fotedar who along with Singh and N.D.Tewari had founded the Congress (Tewari), a breakawy group which at one point had the blessings of Sonia Gandhi. There were hundreds of Congress workers and some Delhi leaders like Yoganand Shastri, Haroon Yusuf, Jile Singh Chauhan and Ramvir Singh Bidhuri came to pay their respect though Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, a beneficiary of Arjun Singh’s patronage was conspicuous by her absence. There was Sharad Yadav and also Ram Vilas Paswan and Sitaram Yechury. It was evident that Singh had friends everywhere and was at one time a leader in the race for Prime Ministership of the country, a position that eluded him till the very end.
I got to know him a little better after he contested from South Delhi in December, 1985 in a bye-election caused by the assassination of Lalit Maken in July. Arjun Singh defeated Vijay Kumar Malhotra very easily and subsequently became the Vice President of the AICC, a position that was given to him by Rajiv Gandhi in recognition of his services to the party as well the country.
Arjun Singh was a manipulator and a very shrewd politician who had great sense of humour and an acid wit. Many of his detractors in the party found him to be a very dangerous enemy to have. Describing the way his mind worked, a senior leader had once told me that if you were to drive a nail in his head, it would have become a screw when you pulled it later with a plier. This is how his mind worked. But Singh had many qualities, which he had acquired over the years he spent in politics. Even his worst critics acknowledged his abilities and Uma Bharti who became the Chief Minister after Digvijai Singh considered him as a father figure. The rumour was that he had guided her on how to defeat Digvijai who was also very close to him. He had told her that being a backward, she should convert the election into a backward vs forward contest. The result in 2003 deprived Digvijai of his third term as the CM. But Digvijai and he continued to be very close and shared many political secrets together.
I do recall that Arjun Singh would always have a tape recorder with him whenever a journalist went to see him. It was to ensure that no one every misquoted him or talked about things out of context. He was very careful in ensuring that this did not ever happen. He was also a champion for the rights of the minorities though he would mix things up to promote his own politics. Unfortunately, his defeats in Lok Sabha polls had robbed him of his exceptionally high status in the political arena and he had reconciled with whatever was on his plate. His Man Friday, Younis was always at his side till the very end and he trusted him perhaps more than anyone else who knew him. If Younis were to write a book about the anecdotes he knew, it would be an instant best seller.
The last I met him was about two months ago. Chattar Singh arranged the meeting and he received me in his living room. He looked very weak and had difficulty in even lifting a biscuit from his plate. But he was at his best and gave insights into some of the developments. He was also a good sounding board to understand politics. In his death, the country has lost a very able administrator and an astute politician. Along with Pranab Mukherjee, he was one of the shrewdest practioner of politcs in the era of UPA. He will always be missed.