On the night of 26th November the earth quaked as Mumbai rocked to the sounds of terrorist gunfire. Some years ago, when Indira Gandhi was assassinated on 31st October 1984, the ensuing anti-Sikh riots were likened to the earth shaking when a giant tree fell. This naiveté came from none other than Indira’s son, and future Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi.
Rajiv, who was then a green horn in politics, was overnight transformed into the mighty Prime Minister of the world’s largest democracy. He too fell from grace in an earth shaking thud, when he was dislodged at the hustings in 1989 by his former aide, Vishwanath Pratap Singh (VP).
Now, while the Mumbai fire raged, VP went to his Maker on the 27th morning. There was no sound, nor ripple; perhaps because media attention was riveted to the carnage in Mumbai. Or was it because the really great come and go quietly?
For most of the educated chatteratti VP was an enigma – a paradox, a contradiction in terms. Was he Mr. Clean, or a schemer? Was he the Raja of Manda (near Allahabad), or the Messiah of the downtrodden? Was he a political maverick, or a deeply principled person? Or was he like an enema – an old fashioned treatment for flushing out what is not wanted and causes unbearable distensions in the stomach?
Being a fellow Upite I have followed VP’s political career very closely, from the time he became the Chief Minister of U,P, about 30 years ago. More importantly, when I was elected National President of the All India Catholic Union (AICU) in May 1990, VP was the Prime Minister. Almost immediately after my election I was sucked into a political maelstrom following the rape of nuns in Gajraula in July that year.
And so it came to pass that I met VP thrice, in quick succession – to be precise on the 2nd, 11th and 17th August, 1990. I was privileged to meet this Prime Minister 3 times within just two weeks. All three meetings left an indelible mark on me.
My first encounter was on the 2nd August. I received a frantic phone call from Msgr Lucio da Viega Coutinho, the Deputy Secretary General of the CBCI. He wanted me to rush to Delhi to lead the protest rally at the Boat Club lawns, and to speak in chaste Hindi. I did. We then proceeded to the PM’s house, where a select delegation of 14 persons was allowed in (Margaret Alva was livid that she had been excluded). VP was then having a meeting of his Cabinet at his residence. It was in that meeting that he had kicked out his troublesome Deputy Prime Minister, Devilal.
Despite such an important Cabinet meeting, VP left it to meet our delegation. He could easily have said, “I am busy, don’t disturb. Two women getting raped is no big deal, to merit the PM’s attention.” But VP was a man of great sensitivity. He left the Cabinet meeting to receive us in an ante chamber. He made no excuses. In our presence he called up Mulayam Singh Yadav, then Chief Minister of U.P., and told him in no uncertain terms that the convent in Gajraula should be protected and the case thoroughly investigated.
I then made a small intervention in Hindi. Immediately his ears picked up, hearing his own dialect of Hindi. I told him about one of his party’s MLAs, who had created some trouble at a convent in y hometown Kanpur. He immediately told Mulayam Singh to tell the errant MLA to go and apologise to the Sisters; which the latter did a few days later. So VP came across to me as a sincere and just man.
My next meeting was 9 days later in Parliament Annexe, where the Government had called a meeting of leaders of various minority communities. I was then privileged to have 2 MPs, Peter and Paul, as my Vice Presidents – Peter Marbaniang from Shillong of the Congress, and Paul Mantosh a nominated Anglo Indian from Calcutta. Ram Vilas Paswan, the then Welfare Minister, introduced me to the PM, saying that “I was a force to reckon with”! Quite a compliment, about which I shall write later. We wanted a photograph with the PM, but he politely declined. He did not believe in a personality cult. VP was a humble man.
On the 17th August, just 6 days later, I met VP for the third time. I was leading a vast throng of about 1,30,000 people from all over India for a rally in support of Dalit Christians, again at the Boat Club lawns. From the rally our delegation went to meet the PM at his chamber in Parliament House, as it was in session at the time, and that was his lunch recess. VP had just announced that Buddhists were being included in the list of those who were entitled to benefits as Dalits (Scheduled Castes). It was the closest we ever got, to extending those benefits to Dalit Christians. VP was forthright. He said that he fully espoused the Dalit Christian cause, but was dependent on the BJP for support. If he tried to extend SC benefits to Dalit Christians the BJP would surely withdraw support. (A few months later the BJP did just that over the Babri Masjid issue). At that meeting, when Abp Angelo Fernandez of Delhi entered the PM’s chamber, VP immediately rose to greet the Archbishop with folded hands. VP both commanded and gave respect. He was also a man of his word.
His implementation of the Mandal Report granting benefits to the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) incurred the wrath of the chatteratti. The Christians of India should know the truth of Mandal. On 25th July 1990 I had led a delegation of Christian leaders to meet Welfare Minister, Ram Vilas Paswan. We presented him 5 lakh signatures of Latin rite Catholics of Kerala, collected by Adv Antony Ambat, in support of the Mandal Report. Paswan was thrilled. That is why, two weeks later he told the PM that we “were a force to reckon with”. For those with short memories, Dalit Christians in 13 States get OBC benefits in the Mandal Report. All Latin rite Catholics in Kerala are classified as OBCs. And Anglo Indians in Kerala and Tamilnadu are also so listed. So the Christians in India have much to thank VP for.
There are many more aspects of VP’s life that I would have liked to write about, but let this much suffice. Today the twin cancers of corruption and communalism are destroying our beloved nation. VP was the enema to flush this out. But cancer of the blood and renal failure felled this mighty tree, without a thud. May his life and principles resound through time, and inspire those who continue to fight communalism and corruption. I salute the man.
* The author chhotebhai was National President of the AICU (All India Catholic Union) from 1990 to 1994.