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Charan Singh - The much misunderstood giant

Dr Subramanian Swamy Charan Singh, popularly known in North India as "Choudhary Saheb", was in my opinion one of the most honest politicians in India. He was also one of the most well read, and of scholarly bent of mind, contrary to popular impressions. Yet he was type-cased by the media as an opportunistic village rustic, someone who had no national vision. I first met Charan Singh in Lucknow in 1974 when I was contesting the Rajya Sabha seat. We were not in the same party then; to get me defeated he had set up industrialist K.K.Birla as an independent candidate. Birla went about openly buying MLAs who were expected to vote for me. So the situation was precarious. But Charan Singh decided to cast the second preference votes of his party for me, thus ensuring my victory. I did not know Charan Singh much then since I barely been in politics for two years. I too had formed an impression that he was a village rustic, and not worth talking seriously. Little did I realise that in his last days twelve years later I would become one of his closest confidants and his admirer. Charan Singh met me in the UP Vidhan Sabha premises when he came to cast his vote. He was an MLA then, and leader of 105 MLAs of the Bharatya Lok Dal (BLD). The BLD in 1977 merged with Janatha Party, and donated the farmer with plough symbol to the new party. This is the symbol of Janatha Party even today. When Charan Singh saw me in the UP Vidhan Sabha, he spoke to me in fluent English. He said: "Young man, despite you abusing me in the UP Assembly election campaign (held in 1973), I have forgiven you and voted for you. I am impressed with your educational qualifications and intelligence, so I voted for you. When you are elected, come and see me". I thanked Charan Singh for voting for me, but I was dazed by his simplicity and English diction. But after defeating K.K.Birla and becoming MP, I went straight to Delhi. I

corresponded with Charan Singh, but since he mostly stayed in Lucknow, and I in Delhi, we could not meet till 1977. In Feb 1977, after Elections to Lok Sabha had been declared, I returned from USA to contest elections. Both Charan Singh and I were in the same party the Janatha Party. So I went to see him. At that time, he was staying in a small flat in Vithal bhai Patel House. When I met him, he was in the midst of a huge crowd relaxing in sunshine on that cold February day. As soon as he saw me, joy came over his face. I had thought he might rebuke me for not seeing him earlier, but Charan Singh did not. He simply shouted to his followers to gather. Soon about 500 people, mostly farmers from Haryana and UP, gathered. "Choudhary Saheb" caught me by the hand, took me to the gathering and introduced me in a lavish way. He said: "This is Dr.Swamy, my friend. Do you know him?" The crowd had come to know of me during the Emergency by reading newspapers and listening to my BBC broadcasts. So they all nodded enthusiastically. Charan Singh said: "We are a nation of cowards. Very few people have courage in our country. But we have survived because there are always some Indians with extra-ordinary courage. Rana Pratap and Subash Bose are examples. Now after the Emergency struggle, we have one more example -- Dr.Subramanian Swamy." The crowd cheered. I was very much touched. I said to myself that here is political leader whose follower I am not, and barely know him. And yet he praised me like this in public. After all the greetings were exchanged, I took leave of Charan Singh, and promised to see him soon. I next saw Charan Singh after he had become Home Minister. I went to his residence in Akbar Road. But unlike many other politicians power had not affected him. He was as simple and warm as before. He got up to receive me, and put the palm of land on my forearm, and asked: "why did not Morarji make you a Minister?" I replied "He says that he cannot make me a Cabinet Minister because I am not old enough, and I will not accept a Minister of state". Charan Singh smiled and said: "Bahadur aadmi (braveman). It is good to

wait. Look at me, I am 77 years old, and first time Central Minister. You are 37, and already a two term MP. Nothing to worry." he comforted me. Then Charan Singh put his hand on my shoulder, and asked, "Will Morarji be grateful to me, that I made him Prime Minister?" Charan Singh was right that he helped make Morarji PM; because of his 112 MPs in the Janata tally of 320 MPs his support to Morarji over Jagjivan Ram decided the contest in favour of Morarji Desai. But Morarji had already told me that God had made him PM, that he had asked no one to support him. Hence if he is to be grateful to anyone on this earth, it is to the whole Janata Party and not to anyone particular leader. Otherwise, destiny made him. I could sense trouble brewing here. Morarji was a evolved sadhu, and did not care who thought what about him. Charan Singh, for all his education, was essentially a simple patriarch, with a deep sense of expecting gratitude for favours done and return favours. Therefore, he wanted Morarji to show deference to him. This developing clash was a pity because ideologically Morarji and Charan Singh were on the same side, more in the GandhijiSardar Patel line than in Nehru's. Morarji and Charan Singh were for simple living, were honest, and strong believers in prohibition. If Morarji was the brain of the Janata, Charan Singh was the spinal cord of the party. We needed both Janatha to be strong. Since both men were strict disciplinarians other less strict and more corrupt Janatha leaders saw personal advantage in dividing the two. Atal Behari Vajpayee was, for example, feeling insecure with Morarji for asking him to give up alcoholic drinks. On one occasion, when the Japanese Foreign Minister gave a dinner party in the Japanese Embassy in New Delhi, Vajpayee had became quite drunk in that party. I had been also invited to that dinner, and was horrified to see our Foreign Minister drunk. Morarji came to know of this through the Intelligence Bureau, so he asked me for confirmation, which I gladly gave. Morarji then called Vajpayee in my presence, and gave him big firing. Vajpayee had no answer except to giggle like a school girl caught stealing. But naturally he felt humiliated.

To keep Morarji in check, Vajpayee began poisoning Charan Singh's mind. It was he who first put the idea of becoming PM in Charan Singh's mind. Like a typical trouble maker, Vajpayee could carry tales to Morarji about Charan Singh, and vice versa. The 'credit' thus of laying the foundation for the break up of Janata Party and the fall of its government, really goes to Vajpayee and not to Charan Singh as is popularly thought. The split came in 1979, and Charan Singh became PM with Indira Gandhi's help. I stayed in Janata with Morarji. Vajpayee ditched Charan Singh at the last minute, and decided to stay in the Janata Party. A year later, he ditched Morarji, and left the Janata to form the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and become its President. Despite my remaining with Morarji in Janatha, I kept my good relations with Charan Singh, and met him often. Charan Singh also knowing fully well that I had cast my lot with Morarji never let that affect his warmth towards me. It was Charan Singh's respect for my scholarship and education and not politics which drew him to me. In our meetings therefore during this period we rarely discussed politics, but books which are worth reading in economics and history. In 1984, Morarji asked me to contest against Chandrasekhar for Janata Party President in the Party polls. This enraged Chandrasekhar and Hegde (who were later to full apart), and who saw it as a plot by Morarji to regain control of the party before the General Elections to the Lok Sabha in 1984 end. Breaking all the rules of the party Constitution, Chandrasekhar got me expelled from the Janata Party. The first phone call I got after the expulsion, was from Charan Singh. He made critical remarks about Chandrasekhar (whom he had never liked), and then took me by surprise by inviting me to join his party. "I want someone like you to be with me with whom I can discuss." he said. He had recently written a book on the Indian Economy, detailing how the farmers had been exploited. I had given him a note on how he could improve his thesis in the second edition of the book. He was delighted, but almost childlike asked me: "Why cannot my books be recognized abroad. No one reads them here. And because of communist

influence in our Universities, it will never be prescribed for students." I promised to do something someday. In the 1984 Elections, after Mrs.Gandhi's assassination, except Charan Singh, all of us in the opposition including Chandrasekhar, Vajpayee and myself lost the elections. So, thinking that a young Rajiv Gandhi of 40 years old, with a huge majority will remain in power for 15 years at least like his mother and grandfather, I decided to take a holiday from politics. I was also only 44 then, young by Indian political standards, so I could wait. Harvard University, upon learning that I had lost the elections, invited me to return to teach economics. When I resumed my teaching in June 1985 at Harvard, I remembered Charan Singh's wish to have international recognition for his book. So I used my professor status to prescribe his book in the economic courses in the university. Harvard formally wrote to Charan Singh asking him to send 350 copies of the book for purchase. When Charan Singh received the letter (his wife later told me) tears came down his eyes. In an emotional burst he said "I have only one true friend that is Swamy". It occurred to me that Charan Singh, despite having become PM, essentially craved to be intellectually recognized. He hated the media hype casting him as a village Jat rustic, and ignoring his writing as a thinker. It also hurt him and made him sad. I remember one day in 1982, he telephoned me to come and see him. I thought something important had happened. When I was with him, seated on the floor in Gandhian style, he asked me, his eyes moist: "Swamy, is there a ritual you know by which I can become a Brahmin?" "Why Choudhary Saheb?" I asked "What value is it to be a Brahmin today?" "See what this correspondent has written "he said showing a newspaper report which described Charan Singh as an "Illiterate". Then Charan Singh said to me "Unless you are a Brahmin, your intellectual ability will never be allowed to be recognized. Jawaharlal Nehru's books are of less scholarly value than mine, and yet he is called 'Panditji' and I am denounced as an illiterate. Why?" Unless I become a Brahmin, my writings will not be recognized".

I agreed with him that while he wrote on difficult economics subjects, Nehru's works dealt with easy essays in history. I also argued that the urban English media is not to be taken seriously. But throughout my association with Charan Singh, I felt that while politicians felt jealous of his solid electoral base he instead would have been happy if he was recognized as a scholar. And of course he should have been in my opinion, regarded as a top intellectual. But because he did not have any outward westernization and was dressed very simply, the citybased people never respected him. It had nothing to do with his not being a Brahmin. Vajpayee is a Brahmin, but he is not regarded as an intellectual. After some months, one day while I was at Harvard, I received a telephone call from Mr. Ajit Singh, son of Charan Singh He said that his father had been admitted for treatment in Baltimore Hospital, and is barely conscious. He had suffered a stroke. I took the next plane from Boston to Baltimore, and went straight to the hospital. I was joined by Mrs.Charan Singh and Ajit Singh. Despite being in semi-conscious state, when Charan Singh saw me, he recognized me and tears rolled down his cheeks. Mrs. Charan Singh told me that Charan Singh had never forgotten that I prescribed his books at Harvard. Today he does not recognize unless someone has touched his heart and memory in some big way. For others, his memory has failed him. That is why tears rolled down his cheeks on seeing. Charan Singh spoke a few words to me, but they were all unconnected with anything relevant. For instance he kept asking me to be aware of another Emergency coming, and rigging of General Elections. Clearly, the stroke he had suffered had also affected his brain. USA could not cure him. Charan Singh was flown back to India. I returned from Harvard after nearly two years. Charan Singh was still alive, but in a semi-conscious state, I went to see him at his Tughlak Road residence. His wife Gayathri and Ajit warned me that he may not open his eyes or even recognize me after this long absence. But as soon as I entered the room, he opened his eyes, his body shook, and he cried. Ajit explained that this was his only way of saying "hello" and this emotion was reserved for a very few. Obviously, the simple

joy of having his books prescribed at Harvard had made an indelible impression on him. I said goodbye to him; he died a few days later. During the 1980's, Charan Singh had spoken a lot about his son Ajit Singh, then an Engineer in USA. As a tribute to Charan Singh, I brought Ajit Singh from the wilderness of politics to make him the Janatha Party President. He did not stay long and soon left the party to join V.P.Singh. Charan Singh was the most misunderstood political leader of India. Had he been given a full term as PM, he would have revolutionized Indian agriculture. He was a person a great courage. He opposed Jawaharlal Nehru in the famous Nagpur AICC when Nehru wanted to collectivize agriculture like in the communist countries. His grip over UP rural masses was so strong that once on an election campaign in Farrukabad, UP, he asked the people to vote against his own party candidate because he drank alcoholic drinks, and asked them to vote for an obscure Independent candidate! If Ajit Singh is winning his election today, it is entirely because of the love people of U.P. have for Charan Singh. Those who knew him loved him. Those who didn't made fun of him for superficial considerations.