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The rise & rise of Digvijaya Singh

Where there is news,there is Digvijaya Singh.

Apart from Rahul Gandhi,he is perhaps the only other Congress general-secretary to have created so much buzz. Last year,he was in Azamgarh speaking on the Batla House encounter. Last month,he accompanied Rahul Gandhi to Bhatta-Parsaul to join farmers protesting land acquisition. And in between,he has been every where,speaking on slain ATS chief Hemant Karkare and Hindu terror,calling the Home Minister “intellectually arrogant” and more recently denouncing Baba Ramdev as a “thug”. Digvijaya Singh is certainly making his presence felt—and heard.

When Singh speaks on a issue,it’s usually a ‘lone voice’ but more often than not it ends up being co-opted as part of party policy. Party colleagues have criticised his attempts at distancing himself from the government—but only from a distance.

So what is the Digvijaya story? Is it simply one of an Outlier? Or does is tell another story: of a party that is increasingly reluctant to articulate its politics or ideas on governance? With an ‘apolitical’ PM and a party president who prefers to stay ‘quiet’ on issues of government,it’s Digvijaya Singh and his statements that often set the tone of the debate.

Not many in his party are willing to speak on him except a few from UP,where Singh is in charge. Lucknow-based Congressman Akhilesh Pratap Singh,for instance,is an admirer and is very hopeful of beating back Mayawati in 2012 by practising the Bhatta-Parsaul brand of aggressive politics as espoused by Rahul Gandhi and Digvijaya Singh.

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Raashid Alvi,party MP from UP says; “He has done a lot for the party in UP,party mazboot hui hai. He implements whatever Rahulji wants done,very effectively.”

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Born in 1947,Singh hails from a princely family in Raghogarh where his father was a devout Gandhian,who even left the Congress when Gandhi gave a call to disband the party after Independence.

In those days,Singh preferred squash to politics and didn’t even vote in student elections when he was studying in Indore. He was all set to go to the US for his Masters,when his father died. Being the eldest,he stayed on and eventually joined politics. He started his career in local municipal politics at the age of 22. He was nearly persuaded by RSS leader Kailash Sarangi to join the Jan Sangh but he decided to join the Congress instead,put off as he was by the Jan Sangh’s “anti-minorities attitude.”

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One of the few who survived the anti-Congress storm of 1977,Singh won his first election as MLA in that year. Since then,he has lost just two elections—in 1989,and then,the big one,as chief minister,in 2003.

An engineer by training and a keen sportsman who represented his university in cricket,tennis,squash and hockey,Singh is now clearly batting on a different wicket and playing a different game.

He may not be a fiery orator but in the past year or so Singh has delivered some hefty punches. His comments on the Batla House encounter—he called it a ‘fake encounter’ and his controversial visits to Azamgarh last year from which even his party leadership was quick to distance itself,triggered acrimonious debates. He was accused of overdoing the “Muslim” line.

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“You are seeing just one side. I was greeted with black flags on the left of the road by the Ulema Council and by the BJP on the right hand side,so there must have been something right in what I was doing,” counters Singh.

From what his critics call wooing the Muslim vote,Singh went on to term Home Minister,P Chidambaram “intellectually arrogant” in an article in a business daily,taking him on on his Naxal policy. He says he genuinely believes “the army cannot be used against our own people,poor tribals.”

He continues to push the envelope on political issues—some put his unflappability down to his proximity to Rahul Gandhi,calling him his ‘mentor’ and ‘prince regent.’

“That statement is rubbish,” says Singh. “Rahulji does not need a mentor or a regent. He has a mind of his own,he travels,reads widely. My only contact with him is that I happen to be the in-charge of a state from where he is an MP.”

If Singh seems to go out of his way to reach out to the Congress’s Muslim constituency,he appears to have gone all out against the RSS and the BJP. He says,“I was the first CM to insist on both the Bajrang Dal and SIMI being banned. We want to end all kinds of communalism. It is going to go the Pakistan way if fundamentalism of any sort is allowed to go unchecked.”

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For members of the RSS,however,Singh is a red rag. RSS leaders say actually he’s credited them with more power than they probably have. In the past week,Singh has been relentless in his accusations that the anti-corruption campaign is being supported by the RSS or forces close to them to indirectly fight off the terror charges they see “catching up with them.” Singh maintains “this so-called anti-corruption movement was thought up by them once the ATS started exposing terror elements from within them. I have letters and circulars sent out by them to their followers to back Ramdev and then Anna Hazare.”

BJP’s Rajiv Pratap Rudy dismisses Singh and his allegations. “He calls a yoga guru a thug and a dreaded terrorist Osamaji. He doesn’t deserve much reference. He has been campaigning relentlessly to give the crusade against corruption a communal colour.”

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In his personal life,Singh is a devout Hindu. He observes all major fasts and his home in Madhya Pradesh has eight temples. He has done the Govardhan parikrama barefoot,he prays for half an hour every day and regrets not having done the Narmada parikrama yet.

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Ask him why he takes so many ‘stands’,especially in a party where even powerful leaders try and test the ‘mood’ first,and Singh is characteristically candid about being candid.

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“That is the way I do my politics. When I make up my mind,I just go ahead. When I was trying to put decentralisation in place in MP,six ministers came to me and protested,but I told them,more devolution will take place. If they didn’t like it,they would have to get a new CM.”

Says Sandeep Dikshit,Congress MP who knew Singh during his days in Madhya Pradesh: “Once he decides that something is in the best interests of the party,he goes ahead and does it. For example,despite opposition from his own Cabinet,he pushed through the Bhopal declaration that gave land to the Dalits.”

Officers who have worked with Singh compliment his ability to make the connection between his analytical,engineering background,and rural India. Says a civil servant; “Other than his decentralisation programme,he was able to push literacy too in MP,and raise the rate to over that in Andhra Pradesh,by 2001.”

But some wonder if in his attempts to endear himself to the High Command,he has lost out on becoming a regional satrap and instead ended up becoming just a part of the Delhi team.

Sitting in his room some 11 months away from Congress’ Mission 2012,sipping his usual warm water in the Congress office,which is incidentally right opposite Rahul Gandhi’s room,Singh is busy meeting ticket hopefuls and a delegation of the Momin Conference.

Despite his often polarising statements,Singh has emerged a consensus builder and delegator,indispensable to the Congress story. One of the hand-picked Rajiv Gandhi appointees as a PCC head,Singh was president PCC,like YSR Reddy in Andhra,in his thirties. Those were the days he spent in the rough and tumble of politics,undertaking long road journeys,meeting people.

So did manoeuvering the minefield of Congress dadas in MP teach him something? “Once when Narasimha Raoji was hassled with Arjun Singhji about something,he asked me how I manage all the bigwigs. I told him,‘they are all big leaders,but I am a small man. I have the greatest regard for them. I have no ego,I don’t take sides and I try to be fair.’ At one point,Arjun Singh and VC Shukla were daggers drawn. I was very close to Arjun Singh,but I was also on excellent terms with Shuklaji. After all,politics is nothing if not the art of managing contradictions.”

First published on: 12-06-2011 at 02:15:19 am
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