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Kalyan Singh has chosen caste over ideology

By Aditi Phadnis
February 07, 2009 16:48 IST
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The Bharatiya Janata Party has had many leaders who are wrestlers, teachers and Lodhs. Dara Singh, once nominated to the Rajya Sabha, is a wrestler; Dr Murli Manohar Joshi is a teacher; Uma Bharati used to be the party's best-known Lodh, a powerful middle-class caste in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. But the party had only one leader who represented all three: Kalyan Singh.

Singh was a dedicated BJP leader until he was sacked by L K Advani in 1999 for being critical of the prime minister in public, and trying to privately sabotage Atal Bihari Vajpayee's election. He returned to the BJP in a triumphant homecoming in 2004, ahead of the Lok Sabha elections. On 20 July, 2009, he left the party again.

In 1999, soon after leaving the BJP, he formed the Rashtriya Kranti Dal which entered into an alliance with the Samajwadi Party. Mulayam Singh Yadav indulged him then, as he seems to be doing now. So, it strains credulity to now hear that the authorities of the
Dar-ul-Uloom-Deoband -- one of north India's most important Islamic seminaries -- are so angry about Mulayam Singh's decision to accommodate Kalyan Singh (the man who was the chief minister when the Babri Masjid was demolished), that the Muslims are going to vote against the SP in the forthcoming elections.

True, SP General Secretary Amar Singh failed to meet any of the authorities at Deoband during a trip and managed to address only a gaggle of assorted maulvis and students. But Kalyan Singh's affiliation -- Yadav has since clarified that Singh is not an SP member -- with the SP is unlikely to cause a tectonic shift in UP politics, illustrating how things have changed.

The fact is, the entry or otherwise of Kalyan Singh into the SP is a matter of indifference to most Muslims, except to those belonging to the educated sections in the community. There is no way of proving this, but it is not communal politics that is returning to UP, it is caste politics. It is, Kalyan Singh the Lodh, with roughly four per cent of the UP vote,
who has left the BJP to stand by Mulayam Singh, a Yadav; not Kalyan Singh the man responsible for the Babri demolition.

Singh belongs to Atrauli near Aligarh and has a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh training background. In 1977, when a rash of Janata governments were elected to power in UP and Bihar, and the BJP was part of these governments, he was made the health minister in the UP government as he was the BJP state president.

Between 1989 and 1992, when V P Singh threw down the Mandal gauntlet, the BJP had no choice but to respond. In Kalyan Singh, the party found an ideal candidate -- he was opposed to Mulayam Singh Yadav, supported the call for the Ram Mandir and was the magnet that the BJP hoped would Hinduise the Other Backward Classes, thus politically leveraging the twin spin-offs of the Mandir and Mandal.

Kalyan Singh was chosen to lead the Ekatmata Yatra and was tasked with covering West Bengal and parts of Bihar. As an idea, the Ekatmata Yatra was brilliant. BJP leaders traveled to all four corners of India with pots of water from various rivers that would be poured into other rivers, denoting the common strand within the BJP, the unity of purpose.

It also helped to create a national stature for future leaders whom the organisation identified as promising. During the Ekatmata Yatra, the Esplanade in Calcutta saw a turnout for a Kalyan Singh public meeting of the size the state had never seen before. In 1991, Kalyan Singh became the chief minister.

That dream punctured itself. Kalyan Singh thought that his popularity was at its peak in 1993, after the Babri Masjid demolition. The BJP could secure only 176 seats in the assembly, making it impossible to form a government.

The BJP realised for the first time, that he (Kalyan Singh) was not as tall a leader as they had imagined him to be. The OBC vote split, with the Kurmis identifying better with the Bahujan Samaj Party. In 1997, elections were held again and, once again, all Kalyan Singh could manage was about 176 seats, reaffirming that the BJP needed another leader if it was to consolidate its support base in UP.

In 1997, the BJP committed what in hindsight seems its cardinal error. It agreed to share its base with Mayawati. Kalyan Singh opposed the deal but then began the famous experiment where Kalyan Singh and Mayawati ruled the state for six months each under the principle of government by rotation. Mayawati ruled for six months and when Kalyan Singh's turn came, she withdrew support. Once again, the BJP was plunged into a crisis.

By now several other faces had emerged in the BJP to stake claim for leadership in UP, including Rajnath Singh and Lalji Tandon. Emasculated and humiliated, Kalyan Singh looked for ways to get even with the party that had nurtured and supported him.

He hit back the only way he knew how. In the 1998-99 general election, he directed the district magistrate and the superintendent of police to not cooperate with Lalji Tandon, leaving himself open to the charge that he had tried to sabotage the prime minister's election. Later, he was suspended and expelled from the BJP on the express instructions of L K Advani.

He returned to the BJP, only to find that things had changed there as well. Once a rival, Rajnath Singh was the president of the party. It became uncomfortable.

Now he has shrugged off his saffron clothes altogether and donned a caste mantle. There are two reasons for this. One, he knows saffron will get little traction in the forthcoming general election; two, the BJP is so weak in UP that the Muslims are not worried on that account. So, a strategic caste alliance with Mulayam Singh may not harm his electoral

What will this do to Mulayam Singh? The overt signs of Muslim anger could be pointing to an inaccurate conclusion - that all Muslims will flock to Mayawati, ensuring a sweep by her in the 80 Lok Sabha seats that are to be secured in the upcoming 2009 elections. A section of the UP Muslims is still loyal to Mulayam Singh Yadav. And if the Lodh vote is added to it, well, what's the harm?

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Aditi Phadnis