Vishwanath Pratap Singh (born 1931) became India’s eighth prime minister on December 2, 1989, heading a minority National Front coalition government that ended a decade of continuous Congress Party rule. However, he was ousted less than a year later.
Born in the north Indian city of Allahabad on June 25, 1931, Vishwanath Pratap Singh was adopted by the raja (ruler) of Manda principality in the state of Uttar Pradesh. In 1955 he married the former Sita Kumari, who was a close confidante. They had two sons. Educated at the Universities of Allahabad and Poona, Singh held two bachelor’s and one law degree. He became involved in politics as vice-president of the student union at Allahabad University, joined the Congress Party, and in 1969 was elected to the Uttar Pradesh legislative assembly.
Two years later Singh became the parliamentary representative from Phulpur constituency in the Uttar Pradesh. In 1974 the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, named him Union deputy minister of commerce. Within two years he became the minister of commerce. After the Congress Party’s defeat in 1977, Singh returned to Parliament as an opposition member until 1980, when the Congress Party once again won a majority. In 1980 he was named chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, where he earned a reputation for honesty in a state known to be difficult to administer with integrity. He resigned in 1982 after failing as promised to curb an upsurge of robberies and killings by gangs of thugs, among whose victims was his brother. Called back to the center, he returned as commerce minister and head of the Department of Supplies in 1983.
After Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984, her son and successor, Rajiv Gandhi, named Singh as finance minister. In this capacity Singh gained a national and international reputation. Suspicious of the bookkeeping habits of India’s major industrial companies, Singh ordered tax raids into the offices of some of the largest and even searched the homes of several chief executive officers, some of whom were close to the Congress Party. Not surprisingly, elements within the Congress and the business community opposed what they termed “heavy handed” tactics. However, Singh gained widespread approval for relaxing industrial controls, rules, and license requirements, thus liberalizing the business climate for Indian and foreign firms alike. He also took an active role internationally at negotiations on aid and trade policies, pressing for special concessions for less-developed countries.
The growth of Singh’s personal popular support was viewed with trepidation among Rajiv Gandhi’s supporters. Hence, in January 1987 Singh was transferred to the less conspicuous Defense portfolio, a post he held only a few months. Accusations surfaced regarding kickbacks paid to Indian agents for the acquisition of German submarines. Singh immediately ordered an investigation, which was criticized by the prime minister, who said he had not been consulted. Singh resigned from the government, accusing the administration of a cover-up. Shortly thereafter he was expelled from the Congress Party.
In October 1987 Singh formed the Jan Morcha (People’s Movement), which he hoped would become a rallying point for opposition parties, which initially paid it little attention. The next year he forged the National Front coalition, including in it the Janata Dal and several smaller parties. However, it was not until almost six months before the November 1989 elections that leaders from other major opposition parties decided that Singh himself was the best bet to defeat the Congress. A loose electoral alliance was formed between the National Front; the right wing Hindu fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), although Singh refused to support its platform; several regional parties; the Socialists; and the Communists.
Singh campaigned actively on three platform planks. The first was a promise to invest more resources to combat rural poverty, a problem he accused the Gandhi administration of ignoring. Countering allegations that he himself was an aristocrat with vast land holdings without sympathy for the poor, he stressed his participation in the Bhoodan movement during the 1950s. That movement distributed donated land to the landless. In fact, he himself donated a large, well-endowed farm to the movement in 1957. The second plank was to clean up the scandals of the Gandhi administration. Further press disclosures had accused the administration of complicity in another arms pay-off scheme involving the Swedish firm Bofors. Singh promised to use the judicial process to prosecute the guilty, but without vindictiveness, and to create an independent ombudsman’s office to handle public complaints. His supporters called him “Mr. Cleaner,” juxtaposed against Gandhi’s “Mr. Clean” label. The third plank was to make the state-owned radio and television service, which many felt had become a mouthpiece for the Congress, autonomous. Singh proved to be an effective campaigner, drawing larger crowds than any other candidate, especially in the north.
Final election results showed the Congress Party had lost its majority, winning only 192 seats (out of 525). Gandhi resigned after futile attempts to build a coalition. The National Front, which had won only 145 seats–with the Janata Dal making up 141 of those–was then asked to form the government. The electoral coalition needed to be transformed into a governing one: a formidable task since the parties involved ranged from the rightist BJP, with 88 seats, to the socialists and Communists (51 seats), and the National Front in the middle. Despite the qualms felt by the National Front and leftists about Hindu fundamentalism, they decided the BJP had to be included in the coalition in order to have a majority. After delicate negotiations spearheaded by Singh, the coalition was forged.
Singh’s leadership was then challenged by two members of the Janata Dal: Devi Lal, chief minister of Haryana, and Chandra Shekhar, a Dal founder and long-standing Congress opponent, who were both interested in the prime ministership. After considerable back-stage maneuvering, Singh nominated Lal as prime minister, which, surprisingly, he declined and in turn nominated Singh, who won the vote. Lal was offered a newly created deputy prime ministership, which he accepted.
To hold this unwieldy coalition together proved to be a formidable task. Additionally, Singh faced secessionist movements in the states of Punjab and Kashmir. The latter threatened to erupt into armed conflict with Pakistan in early 1990 and exacerbated Hindu-Muslim conflict in the country. Known as a consensus builder, skilled negotiator, and a person of strong will, Singh’s talents were considerable, but were stretched to their utmost and ultimately failed. Singh held the post as Prime Minister less than a year due to pressures from political rivals and an electorate increasingly polarized along caste and religious lines.
With frequent changes in the India government, Singh joined a growing group of ex-prime ministers. The number of ex-prime ministers had become so large by 1995 that concern for the cost of providing the security services of the Special Protection Group (SPG) became a major political issue. Singh, always putting the plight of the poor before his own, requested that the SPG, in order to save money, no longer provide security for him and his family. In a letter to, then Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda, Singh stated, “It will not be possible to accept an alternative cover if it puts the same burden on the treasury and the poor man as the SPG does.” In January 1997 Singh announced he was taking a sabbatical from active politics.