An old-fashioned secularist

Sanjay Kapoor

In his last days, an ailing Arjun Singh sat silently, sphinx-like, in the living room of his Akbar Road residence in Delhi, giving an impression of disinterestedness and ennui about what was really happening in the country or the Congress party. Indeed, what a flawed impression it could be! 

The veteran Congress leader and former Union human resource development minister, Arjun Singh, passed away on March 4 at 82. Right till his last days, he was not only well-informed, but also deeply concerned by a lot that was going wrong in the country. He was an old fashioned socialist who never reconciled to the neoliberal economic policies of Manmohan Singh and the manner in which market fundamentalism, brazenly in favour of a few corporates, was disenfranchising the poor of the country. 

He was parsimonious in his choice of words and the people with whom he bared his soul. A feudal from Madhya Pradesh, his formative years were scarred by the incarceration of his politician father, who was convicted for forging documents in favour of a diamond worker as a minister in the first government of Jawaharlal Nehru. Young Arjun was comforted by Pandit Nehru when his father was in jail. Right till his death, he remained a staunch loyalist, a dogged secularist, always fighting to uphold the core values of Congress and the freedom movement, even when it was not really fashionable to do that. 

He ran afoul of PV Narasimha Rao as his HRD minister because he did not like or accept Rao's covert policies of soft Hindutva. He resented the fact that Rao became a spineless accomplice in the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992 by the BJP-VHP-Shiv Sena-Bajrang Dal combine. Rao, as PM, had all the powers to stop this blasphemous act of violence, which marked one of the blackest chapters in a pluralist India's history carved painstakingly by secularists like Nehru. This was a deep angst in Singh's heart. Singh had warned Rao a few weeks before the atrocity took place, but typically, a scheming, ineffective Rao did not take pre-emptive steps. Rao's manifest inaction left the impression that he had actually allowed the dubious circumstances for the demolition. 

There is a belief that Arjun Singh could have become PM if he had shown courage and resigned in protest after the demolition. It is unclear how history would judge him, but by choosing not to destablise his government by quitting, he ensured that order was quickly restored in the country. If he had engulfed his government in a crisis and triggered a split in the parliamentary party, then, surely, a lot of things would have looked quite different. 

Differences with Rao never settled down - they got worse. Singh expressed strong reservations about the tardy pace of investigation in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination probe. He believed that attempts were being made to scuttle the Jain Commission probing the wider conspiracy behind Rajiv's killing. Later, it seemed, he was expressing views that were dear to Sonia Gandhi's heart. There was merit in Singh's allegations as Jain Commission ran into one hurdle after another; often home ministry documents were denied, and so on.

Circumstances forced him to leave Congress. His departure coincided with his name figuring in the infamous Jain hawala scandal. Like many of the other accused, he believed that Rao was using it to fix his opponents. Rao and Congress were grievously hurt by the consequent split and the fallout of the scandal. The party lost in the 1996 Lok Sabha elections. 
Although Singh became part of the 2004 government of Manmohan Singh, he had lost considerable influence in the party. Although a member of the Congress Working Committee, he was always deliberately shown as a dissenter, someone who did not fit into the neoliberal agenda. Singh did not mind this impression. He deftly, quietly, without controversy, ushered in a secular, intellectual realm of balance in the education sector, after Murli Manohar Joshi had run amok in saffronising history textbooks and pushing an RSS-driven Hindutva agenda in the school curriculum. 

A committed secularist, he was an effective minister, an astute politician with a well-defined worldview. Congress will be poorer with his death.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: APRIL 2011

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