Kalyan Singh: Blending Mandal and Kamandal, he rose like a meteor — to fade like one

Kalyan Singh, who blended Mandal with Kamandal — caste identity politics with Hindutva — into a potent political mix that became the fuel for the BJP’s expansion, passed away Saturday evening in a hospital in Lucknow after a prolonged illness. He was 89.

Much before the emergence of Narendra Modi on the national scene, it was Kalyan Singh who was seen in party ranks as the “Hindu-Hriday Samrat”. His rise in the party was meteoric — its peak marked by the demolition of the Babri Masjid under his watch as Chief Minister — and his fall and fadeout almost as rapid.

Incidentally, in 2017, the BJP returned to power in UP after a gap of 15 years riding the same mix of Mandal-Kamandal and is trying to tap into the same coalitions ahead of next year’s polls.

I am saddened beyond words. Kalyan Singh Ji…statesman, veteran administrator, grassroots level leader and great human. He leaves behind an indelible contribution towards the development of Uttar Pradesh. Spoke to his son Shri Rajveer Singh and expressed condolences. Om Shanti. pic.twitter.com/ANOU2AJIpS

— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) August 21, 2021

Expressing his condolences, Prime Minister Modi said that “generations to come will remain forever grateful” to Kalyan Singh for his contribution towards India’s “cultural regeneration”. And that he “gave voice to crores of people belonging to the marginalised sections of society”, working for the “empowerment of farmers, youngsters and women”.

After his 13-day BJP government in 1996, Atal Bihari Vajpayee returned to power in 1998 with 182 Lok Sabha seats which included 58 from UP then being ruled by Kalyan Singh. A year later, despite the glow of victory in Kargil, the party barely hung on to that figure.

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath pays tribute to Kalyan Singh, in Lucknow on Saturday. (Photo: PTI)

The reason: the BJP’s tally in UP, where the party had shrunk to 29 seats amid Kalyan’s public bickering with Vajpayee during the 1999 Lok Sabha elections. The buzz was that Kalyan told his aides that Vajpayee needed to become an MP first before he could become PM.

These words reached powerful ears in Delhi and sealed his fate. After the elections, then BJP general secretary KN Govindacharya was sent to Lucknow to deliver suspension notice to Kalyan. Marching orders came after he refused the leadership’s offer to vacate the Lucknow chair and join the Centre as Agriculture Minister.

When he returned to BJP just ahead of the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, gone was his magic – the BJP could barely manage 10 seats in Uttar Pradesh staying only seven behind the Congress at the national level losing power in Delhi.

Though Kalyan Singh won his own Lok Sabha seat — with tacit help from Mulayam Singh Yadav — he could never recover his lost political ground. Again, he parted ways with the BJP ahead of 2009 Lok Sabha elections to get elected to the Lok Sabha as an Independent candidate supported by Mulayam.

Ironically, it was the bitter Kalyan-Mulayam faceoff that propelled him to a national icon among BJP workers. While Mulayam let the police fire on kar-sevaks in October 1990 to save the Babri Masjid, it was under Kalyan Singh’s watch on December 6, 1992, that the police were told not to do so, tying their hands and, effectively, letting kar sevaks raze the Babri Masjid that afternoon.

Kalyan Singh remained unrepentant calling the act a spontaneous outburst. This became his calling card and captured the imagination of BJP workers and supporters across the country. So much so that although the BJP had adopted a resolution for the Ram Temple in 1989, L K Advani had galvanised popular opinion by his Rath Yatra in 1990, it was Kalyan who established himself as the architect of the demolition.

Kalyan Singh, who had promised the Supreme Court that the Babri would be safe was held guilty of contempt of court and was sentenced to jail for a day in 1994 for the demolition. It was his moment in the political sun and he basked in it.

Trained as a school teacher, Kalyan Singh worked as an RSS functionary in his home district of Aligarh before he was picked up by Nanaji Deshmukh for electoral politics.

Singh was elected to the UP Assembly as a Jan Sangh member for the first time in 1967, the same year Mulayam entered the Assembly for the first time as a Socialist Party member. Ten years later, Singh was one of Jan Sangh nominees in the Janata Party government that came to power in Lucknow after the Emergency – and Mulayam his Cabinet colleague.

With the split from Janata Party over the dual membership issue (being a member of Janata Party as well as of the RSS), Kalyan Singh moved with his other Jan Sangh colleagues into the BJP and began as state general secretary in 1980.

He was made BJP state president in 1984 and was elected leader of BJP legislature party after the 1989 Assembly elections during the first stint of Mulayam as CM.

This put Kalyan Singh in the BJP front seat in state politics – and plunged him right into the turbulent churn of national politics over the next two years: Prime Minister V P Singh unveiling the Mandal Commission report; Advani’s Rath Yatra; the fall of the VP Singh government after Advani was arrested by the Lalu Prasad government in Bihar; the split in the Janata Dal and the Congress withdrawing support to the Chandrashekhar government.

Mulayam Singh, who had aligned with Chandrashekhar after the split in Janata Dal, lost power and UP went to polls in 1991. Mandal had boosted backward caste identity politics and Mulayam’s directions to the police to fire on kar sevaks had polarized the state.

This was fertile ground for Kalyan, an RSS-trained OBC leader of the BJP, to tap into the Mandal-Kamandal churn and come to power in 1991 winning 221 of 425 Assembly segments in the state – the first BJP state CM.

The polarization in the wake of the Babri demolition led to a political realignment with Mulayam tying up with Kanshi Ram’s BSP for the 1993 Assembly elections to deny Kalyan Singh power despite BJP emerging as the single-largest party but short of a majority.

The BJP again fell short of majority in the 1996 elections that followed after the fall of SP-BSP alliance government when BSP pulled the rug from under Mulayam Singh’s feet.

With no possibility of a fresh SP-BSP post-poll alliance — given the infamous guest house vandalism by SP leaders against Mayawati in May 1995 — Kalyan Singh, nudged by the party leadership, agreed to a six-month rotational CM arrangement with Mayawati’s BSP.

Mayawati, however, pulled out within a month of Kalyan Singh taking over following her six months in power. The BJP engineered defections in BSP ranks to ensure that Kalyan retained a majority.

Soon, his rivals in state politics used the pretext of local councillor Kusum Rai’s growing influence on him as an excuse to drag him down in the eyes of the central leadership. It was only after Vajpayee came to centre stage as Prime Minister, that the power tussle intensified and, eventually, Kalyan fell out.

He could never recover and his subsequent politics became one of survival – getting back into the BJP ahead of 2004 Lok Sabha elections, quitting BJP ahead of the 2009 Lok Sabha elections and contesting as an Independent to become an MP with help from Mulayam Singh Yadav, returning to BJP ahead of 2014 elections to ensure his son Rajvir Singh became an MP.

His last hurrah, in a way, was his advice on UP’s caste politics to BJP General Secretary Amit Shah that got BJP 71 seats and helped seal Modi’s historic election victory.

Kalyan Singh, who enjoyed immunity by virtue of being Governor of Rajasthan, deposed before the CBI court after demitting office of Governor in 2019. Tried for conspiracy along with other BJP leaders including Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Uma Bharti and other VHP leaders, Kalyan Singh was eventually exonerated by the CBI trial court in September 2020.

In a way, those were the bookends of his politics. The 2019 Supreme Court ruling in the title suit cleared the way for the the construction of the Ram temple at the site where the Babri once stood before it was demolished under his watch.

“I bow down to such a great and ideal life dedicated to the nation, religion and people,” said Home Minister Shah Saturday. “The country and the entire BJP family is mourning his death…the country has lost a true patriot…Babuji was such a huge tree under whose shadow the organisation of BJP flourished and expanded.”

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