Saturday, May 15, 2010
He thought, breathed, lived for people
Bhairon Singh Shekhawat
Rajasthan ro ek hi singh, Bhairon Singh, Bhairon Singh! Out there in the desert, it was a colourful sight. A large crowd had gathered to hear Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, who was then Chief Minister of Rajasthan. It was early evening. Babosa, as Bhairon Singh was popularly — and affectionately — referred to, was on a jan sampark tour: The benign ruler among the masses, whom he never tired of describing as “my people”.
Later that night, as we ate a Spartan desert meal, Babosa casually mentioned how he would have had never become the ‘only lion’ of Rajasthan but for a decision he took nearly half-a-century ago at the behest of his younger brother.
It was 1952 and the Bharatiya Jana Sangh was looking for candidates to contest the first election. His younger brother, Vishan Singh, who had been attending the local shakha at Khachariawas, a dusty village in Sikar district where the Shekhawat family lived, knew the office-bearers of the newly-floated Jana Sangh. He met one of them, a pracharak who had been made joint secretary, and suggested that his elder brother be considered as a potential candidate.
Bhairon Singh, who had resigned from the police after rising to the post of Assistant Sub-Inspector, was at a loose end. Goaded by Vishan Singh, he met the Jana Sangh joint secretary and was ‘evaluated’ to check whether he met the party’s tough criteria. Later, he was taken to meet the Jana Sangh general secretary. Both the office-bearers were sufficiently impressed by the young man in a saafaa, khaki shirt, tightly-wrapped dhoti and sporting a traditional Rajputana moustache to give him the ticket for Danta-Ramgarh constituency.
Bhairon Singh won the election and became an MLA. He never looked back after that, winning each Assembly election, except the 1972 poll, till he became Vice-President of India in 2002. As he went on to build the Jana Sangh in Rajasthan and lead its team of legislators, the general secretary and joint secretary busied themselves building the party at the national level. The general secretary was Sunder Singh Bhandari. The joint secretary was LK Advani. “Among the many fond memories of my long association with Bhairon Singhji, the fondest is of inducting him into politics,” Advani said on Saturday.
In those early years, Bhairon Singh was a radical among conservatives whose voice would often be heard both outside and inside the Assembly. “Those days when he spoke, he roared like a lion,” Atal Bihari Vajpayee once recalled while talking about his close friends in the Jana Sangh and later the BJP, adding, “He was not so soft-spoken then. With his moustache and rolled up sleeves, he looked like a fighter… He still remains a fighter.”
The Jana Sangh in Rajasthan faced a major crisis in the 1950s. The Government had decided to abolish the jagirdari system and a Bill was introduced in the Assembly. There were eight Jana Sangh MLAs, most of them from landed, feudal families which were appalled by the move to abolish jagirdari. Bhairon Singh sought the advice of party leaders. Syama Prasad Mookerjee and Deendayal Upadhyaya said the party should support the Bill for abolition of jagirdari as it was committed to an egalitarian society.
The decision was conveyed to the MLAs. When the Bill came up for discussion and voting, six of the eight Jana Sangh MLAs walked out of the party rather than support the legislation. Bhairon Singh, who forever remained proud of his Rajput lineage and heritage, was one of the two Jana Sangh legislators who voted for the Bill.
Bhairon Singh was equally forceful in insisting that the Jana Sangh should have nothing to do with Ram Rajya Parishad as that would mean supporting the views of its leader, Swami Karpatri, who openly advocated the practice of chaturvarna. “Swami Karpatri once pointed towards me and said, ‘Yeh aur woh, sab ek thaali se khatein hain.’ I walked up to him and said, ‘Khana thaali se hi khaya jata hai’,” Bhairon Singh told me on another occasion. That was his subtle jibe at Swami Karpatri who never used a plate or any other utensil for his meals, but insisted that food be served in his palms.
With the fall of the Congress after Mrs Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, during which Bhairon Singh, like most Opposition politicians, was jailed, the Janata Party came to power in several States; one of them was Rajasthan. The Jana Sangh had merged with the Congress (O), the Socialists and other Opposition parties to form the Janata Party. Bhairon Singh was elected leader of the legislature party and became Chief Minister. That Government was sacked soon after Mrs Indira Gandhi returned to power in 1980.
Smarting from that gross injustice and furious with an imperious New Delhi, Bhairon Singh initiated the forging of an alliance of Opposition Chief Ministers to demand reforms in Centre-State relations, ranging from transfer of taxes to States to prevention of misuse of Article 356 to dismiss non-Congress Governments. It was during those years that he struck a friendship with leaders across the political spectrum, from Jyoti Basu in West Bengal to Parkash Singh Badal in Punjab to Farooq Abdullah in Jammu & Kashmir and M Karunanidhi in Tamil Nadu. That friendship endured the test of time and the ups and downs of politics.
Although not known for any proximity with the RSS, Bhairon Singh walked out of the Janata Party along with Advani and Vajpayee over the ‘dual membership’ issue. And set himself to the task of rebuilding the party, reborn as BJP, virtually from a scratch in Rajasthan. He called on old workers and they responded in full measure.
His second stint as Chief Minister after the BJP won the 1990 election also proved to be short-lived when the State Government was dismissed in 1992 after the demolition of the disputed Babri structure in Ayodhya. A year later, when election was held, Bhairon Singh was back as Chief Minister.
Few would remember it today but Bhairon Singh was the initiator of the most innovative anti-poverty programme. He called it Antyodaya and aimed it at the poorest of the poor. Every district magistrate was asked to identify the poorest families in each village, ask them what could be done for their benefit by way of sustainable income, and do it immediately. The programme was hugely successful and fetched him international applause. Robert McNamara, then World Bank chief, described Babosa as “India’s Rockefeller”.
Bhairon Singh was the quintessential politician who thought, breathed and lived politics. Yet, there were facets to his personality not known to many. Though he had little formal education, he was an avid reader and read anything that was published on the Constitution, from which he could cite chapter and verse. In his own way, Babosa was committed to the greening of Rajasthan. Whenever he had time, he would take off in the official plane to survey projects to stop the desert from encroaching and would be most annoyed if he couldn’t count the trees, which would be often if not always. “The next time we will go by car,” he told me after one such flight.
The other passion Bhairon Singh had was to promote the interests of the girl child in feudal Rajasthan. At every rally, every public meeting, he would tell the people how he had only one child, a daughter, and that she had made him proud. “You say that I am the only lion of Rajasthan. Although I have a daughter and no son, you still call me that. See, it makes no difference,” Babosa would say and the people would chant, “Rajasthan ro ek hi Singh, Bhairon Singh, Bhairon Singh!”
Politicians are by nature garrulous people who love to talk and are in constant search of listeners. Bhairon Singh could talk late into the night. But with Vajpayee he shared a unique relationship of companionable silence. He would turn up unannounced, walk into Vajpayee’s room, anybody else present there was made to feel distinctly unwelcome, and for the next couple of hours the two men would lounge around, exchanging stray sentences followed by long silences. On one occasion I accidentally walked in to find them in deep solitude, listening to Kumar Gandharv. But with Advani it was an entirely different relationship: The two leaders talked politics, discussed strategy and decided tactics.
Till the end Babosa remained a fighter. He fought the 2007 presidential election knowing full well he couldn’t win against the combined might of the Congress, the Left and the non-NDA parties. But he fought to the finish, accepted defeat gracefully and retired from politics. In his personal life, he fought and won two battles against clogged arteries and treated the bypass operations he underwent as no more than lancing of bothersome boils. The last battle he fought was against cancer. Had he been younger, he would have won this battle too.