Kalyan Singh was the harbinger of the present day BJP. He was the first BJP leader who personified the dual axes of Hindutva and backward caste empowerment, of Mandal and Mandir, around which the party’s politics revolved.
When the two themes dominated political discourse in the Hindi heartland in the nineties, political pundits were quick to pronounce that they were contradictory and would never coalesce. Hindutva could never co-opt the “subaltern” castes and sub-castes in its stream because vast though its expanse was, the space would be appropriated by the upper castes while the backward castes and Dalits would remain as appendages.
The emergence and rise of Kalyan Singh belied this prognosis. He was the BJP’s first “Hindu Hriday Samrat” (monarch of the Hindu heart) as well as a pioneering backward caste leader. The seeming contradictions between these two facets that define contemporary Indian politics were reconciled in Kalyan Singh’s persona. Therefore, he has earned a place in the BJP’s iconography of greats.
Kalyan Singh passed away late on Saturday after prolonged illness at Lucknow’s Sanjay Gandhi Postgraduate Institute of Medical Sciences where he was hospitalised.
He was born on January 5, 1932, to a farmer, Tejpal Singh Lodh, at Mdholi village in Aligarh district. The family belonged to the Lodh-Rajput backward caste, a community that constitutes the “creamy layer” of the backward castes with the Yadavs and Kurmis. The backward caste “elite” evolved in the phase that followed the Mandal Commission’s implementation of reservation in education and jobs for the Other Backward Classes (OBCs).
Like the Yadavs, the Lodh-Rajputs were also beneficiaries of the ceiling on land holdings that was scrupulously enforced by Chaudhary Charan Singh when he was the chief minister from the Bharatiya Kranti Dal twice, in 1967-68 and 1970. Like the Jats of west UP, the Lodh-Rajputs and the Yadavs took advantage of the more equitable land redistribution that Charan Singh’s path-breaking move brought about.
Therefore, economic empowerment gave these castes a relatively smoother passage to the social advantages offered by the statutory quota, unlike the MBCs and EBCs, which, bereft of financial props, still struggle to get past high school education.
The difference between the two communities was that while the Lodh-Rajputs got aligned to the RSS and subsumed their backward caste identity in the “Hindu mainstream”, the Yadavs, although religious, were more influenced by Socialism.
Kalyan Singh was older to Mulayam Singh Yadav, UP’s other prominent backward caste leader by eight years, but the parallels in their early lives are apparent. Their home-towns, Mdholi and Safai, are roughly 50 kms apart. They were born to farmers who got their sons educated up to post-graduation before the quota era arrived. Kalyan Singh and Mulayam Singh began their careers as teachers before entering politics — the former through the RSS and Mulayam through the Socialists.
Kalyan Singh won his first election from Atrauli (Aligarh district) as a Bharatiya Jana Sangh candidate and continued to represent the seat until 1977, the last as a Janata Party nominee. Atrauli elected him serially from 1985 to 1996, as a BJP candidate. Atrauli was to Kalyan Singh what Jaswant Nagar (Etawah) was to Mulayam, a fief.
As long as the Jana Sangh and the BJP were on the fringes, Kalyan Singh was not a significant player in UP politics. He was part of a quartet that comprised Kalraj Mishra, Lalji Tandon and Rajendra Gupta. Gupta and Tandon passed away but in their own ways, they built the BJP that tasted its first success in the 1991 assembly elections when it was elected with a simple majority largely on the back of the Ramjanmabhoomi movement.
The “crusade” to “liberate” the Ayodhya temple was essentially a response to coalesce the Hindu “samaj” because the RSS feared that the Pandora’s Box, opened by the Mandal Commission’s report that former PM Vishwanath Pratap Singh wished to implement, would throw the upper castes out of business. In the 1991 elections, the Janata Dal held its own among the backward castes of east and central UP.
The prelude to choosing Kalyan Singh as the CM was painful. He was not projected as one, and the belief within the UP BJP was that Mishra was the man. However, KN Govindacharya, then a powerful general secretary, upset the apple cart.
An advocate of social engineering and a silent VP Singh admirer, he fiercely argued in favour of anointing Kalyan Singh to counter the Mandal impact. Otherwise, the BJP risked losing the OBC and Dalit votes for posterity and reducing itself to a party of the “savarnas”.
LK Advani was still the BJP president (Murli Manohar Joshi succeeded him shortly thereafter) and heard out Govindacharya. Advani was also close to Kalyan Singh. Finally, Kalyan Singh was elected as the BJP’s first UP CM although the choice was resented by the upper castes that chafed at the Mandal report. Privately, even the members of the BJP’s ruling quartet complained that Kalyan Singh had a “backward caste” mindset.
Like Narendra Modi, Kalyan Singh took care to underplay his OBC provenance and enhance the pro-Hindutva political aspects. He wanted to prove he was an efficient administrator. He pitched for the “ease of doing business” long before the phrase became fashionable, and passed a law against copying that gladdened the classes and put off the masses, especially in the small towns and villages.
Close to December 1992, when the Ayodhya agitation nearly touched a crescendo and tempers ran high within the RSS “parivar”, Kalyan Singh was not happy with the likely final act once the “kar sevaks” assembled at the pilgrim town. In an interview with this writer, two days before the Babri mosque was demolished, Kalyan Singh spoke of alternate “solutions” which he thought were “acceptable” to Hindus and Muslims. He stressed he wanted to complete his tenure as the CM because there were unfinished tasks on the agenda. Events spiralled out of control, the mosque came down and Kalyan Singh’s government was dismissed by PV Narasimha Rao with the other BJP dispensations.
Kalyan Singh was certain the BJP would be re-elected in the next election and the Lucknow “gaddi” would be his again. The 1993 assembly election just had his posters with the slogan, “Jo kaha so kiya” (what was said was done). In a shock verdict, the BJP lost the election, by a whisker, to the Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party combine.
The early nineties marked the high noon in his career. He returned as the CM in 1997 but by then, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and to an extent, Joshi had emerged as countervails against Advani. Govindacharya’s clout had waned. Kalyan Singh reinforced his commitment to Hindutva, insisting that primary schools should begin the day with a worship of Bharat Mata and use “Vande Mataram” in the roll call instead of “Yes Sir/Madam”. In February 1998, he withdrew cases against those implicated in the Ayodhya demolition.
A brief heroic moment was experienced in February 1998, when a coalition government headed by Kalyan Singh was dismissed by the erstwhile Governor Romesh Bhandari who installed a minority dispensation headed by a former Congressman, Jagdambika Pal, who’s now in the BJP. Kalyan Singh was supported by a breakaway faction of the Congress that withdrew support. Vajpayee, who never liked Kalyan Singh, went on fast to protest the ouster. The Allahabad High Court intervened and ordered status quo bellum to be restored. Kalyan Singh was back, feted and honoured, in time for the Lok Sabha elections which the BJP swept in UP.
He was never comfortable during the Vajpayee regime. An association with Kusum Rai, a BJP member from Azamgarh, acquired scandalous proportions. The BJP brass, including Advani, signalled to Kalyan Singh to call off the “relationship” but he stood by Kusum and was upfront about his friendship with her.
By then, Rajnath Singh was at the helm in UP. Kusum parted from him and returned to the BJP. But Kalyan quit the party twice, in 1999 and 2004, and floated his own outfits: the Rashtriya Kranti Party and the Jan Kranti Party. Before the 2009 elections, he had an alliance with the SP and campaigned with Mulayam in the latter’s chopper. Kalyan Singh won his seat in Etah but the 2009 elections cost the SP the Muslim votes that went to the Congress. The minorities reminded Mulayam that he had the person who oversaw the Babri demolition as his partner. The partnership did not last.
By 2014, after Modi intervened, Kalyan Singh was back in the BJP, older, bitter, chastened. One of Modi’s early moves was appointing him as a Governor. Kalyan Singh’s son, Rajveer, was given a Lok Sabha ticket from Etah. He won twice. Rajveer’s son, Sandeep, is a BJP legislator and a minister in the Yogi Adityanath government.
Kalyan Singh went through the vicissitudes that a top-ranking politician would. Had he played straight and narrow, who knows, he might have become the BJP president or even a PM candidate. At the peak of his career, he had a large following in the country because the BJP’s followers perceived him more as a champion of Hindutva and less as a Mandal representative. He of course imagined he was both in equal parts.