Orwell’s yardstick is rigorously applicable to present-day politicians as well. Kalyan Singh, however, was an exception, as he neither claimed to be a saint nor was he a hard-boiled practitioner of politics guided by cold calculations. Singh was his own man, driven often by impulses and emotions of the time. He had a magical spell on the masses. Much before he assumed charge as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh in 1991, Singh was known as a sincere and honest leader, in his capacity as health minister in the Janata Party government in the state (1977-80).
Those were the days when the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS) had merged its identity in the Janata Party to battle the Emergency.
As health minister, he made his mark by transferring en masse government doctors who had formed a formidable power lobby in the state.He broke the vested interests to ensure that health facilities were accessible to all.
Old-timers recall that Singh would make surprise visits to hospitals across the state to check if the poor were getting proper treatment.
His rise from a humble background in Atrauli village of Aligarh district to the top mirrors the arrival of plebeians in Indian politics.
He was inseparably wedded to the Sangh Parivar’s ideology.
Singh’s tryst with politics began in the late sixties when the state witnessed the emergence of a powerful anti-Congress coalition that eventually dislodged the Grand Old Party from Uttar Pradesh.In successive years, Singh emerged as a sober and powerful voice within the BJS.
His knew the people and the geography of Uttar Pradesh like the back of his hand.Singh’s no-nonsense and incorruptible image as health minister stood him in good stead after the Janata Party split and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was formed.
He emerged as its most credible political face across the state. Singh’s role in the Ram Janmabhoomi movement catapulted him to the centre stage of the BJP and he became its first chief minister in 1991. Though the Mandal agitation had polarised society, it goes to his credit that he never flaunted his OBC credentials till then. People became aware of Singh’s OBC background only when senior leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee casually referred to it during the BJP national executive meet in Sarnath of Varanasi (1991) to emphasise how the party was averse to exploiting social fault lines for political gains.
Singh proved to be an outstanding administrator in his stint as chief minister. He launched a drive to purge the state of criminals and streamlined the administration to check corruption. Those who worked with him still say that his grasp of governance was so profound that he would reorient the bureaucracy to people’s welfare with his deft handling of administrative tools. Singh’s popularity soared after he was sacked following the Babri Masjid demolition on December 6, 1992.In the country’s most populous state, he emerged as a genuine voice of the marginalised sections. His subsequent political career was tumultuous, with more downs than ups.
Yet he lived an extraordinary life by setting his own terms of engagement in politics even while fiercely holding on to his sense of self-respect and dignity.He was certainly a deviation from the image of an archetypal pragmatic politician on whom Orwellian scrutiny can be suitably applied.
(The author is Press Secretary to the President of India)