New Delhi, January 2
With his ear to the ground and eye on the national politics, Congress veteran Buta Singh was the quintessential politician who sailed through the most turbulent years of Indian politics with deftness and diligence, and went on to become the virtual No. 2 in the Rajiv Gandhi government in the late 1980s.
Singh, a prominent Dalit face of the grand old party and a staunch loyalist of Rajiv Gandhi, died at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) here on Saturday morning after being comatose for several weeks. He was 86.
In a chequered political career spanning over five decades, Singh often found himself at the centre of major controversies, but he always found a way to bounce back.
Born into a humble ‘mazhbi’ Sikh family in Mustafapur in Punjab’s Jalandhar district on March 21, 1934, Singh was a member of Lok Sabha for eight terms, held several positions in varied ideological dispensations at the Centre and became the Governor of Bihar in 2004.
He rose to national prominence in the 1980s as he was the lone Sikh face in the Rajiv Gandhi cabinet in the period after the Operation Bluestar and the anti-Sikh riots of 1984. He succeeded P V Narasimha Rao as the home minister in 1986 and served in that position till 1989 when the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress lost the election.
Before Rajiv Gandhi, Singh was close to his mother and predecessor Indira Gandhi and held several positions in her government. He also played a role in selecting the Congress’s new poll symbol—“hand”—after the party split in 1978.
But, Singh had to pay a price for his close association with the Gandhis and his positions in the successive Congress governments—he was excommunicated from the socio-religious order of the Sikhs in April 1985 for his role in the Operation Bluestar that caused damage to the Akal Takht, the highest temporal seat of the Sikhism.
Nearly 10 years after the events at the Golden Temple, he sought atonement and returned to the Sikh fold. In March 1994, he was granted pardon.
Pictures of him undergoing the punishment of dusting shoes, washing dishes and sweeping floors at the Golden Temple and other gurdwaras, with a plaque around his neck declaring him a sinner, went viral at the time.
He also had his fair share of controversies—over consecration of bricks for a Ram temple in Ayodhya in 1989 and over dismissal of many state governments during his tenure as home minister.
As the Union home minister in 1989, Singh had a role in the consecration of bricks inscribed with Lord Ram that were brought to Ayodhya for the temple construction even when the land was disputed.
Years later, he had to quit as Bihar Governor after the Supreme Court was critical of his role in recommending the dissolution of the state Assembly in 2005. He resigned in 2006.
In his initial political life, Singh was associated with the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD). He joined the Congress in the early 1960s. He was first elected to the Lower House of Parliament in 1962 from Punjab. Later, he represented Rajasthan’s Jalore constituency in Lok Sabha.
He switched over to the BJP briefly and became the Minister for Communications in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee cabinet in March 1998.
He was indicted in the JMM bribery case in 1998 and had to resign as the Union communications minister thereafter.
He, however, switched back to the Congress and was made the Governor of Bihar.
A prominent Dalit leader, he started as the convenor of the All India Congress Committee’s (AICC) Harijan cell in 1973-74, after which he became the AICC general secretary in 1978.
Singh became the Union deputy minister, railways in 1974 and the Union deputy minister, commerce in 1976. In 1980, he became the Union minister of state, shipping and transport and was also given the portfolio of sports (independent charge) in 1982.
In 1983, then prime minister Indira Gandhi elevated him as the cabinet minister for parliamentary affairs, sports and works and housing.
In 1984, he was made the Union minister for agriculture and rural development and in 1986, the Union home minister in the Rajiv Gandhi cabinet.
Under P V Narasimha Rao, Singh was the Union minister of civil supplies, consumer affairs and public distribution from 1995 to 1996.
He was appointed the chairman of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC) by Manmohan Singh in 2007. He held that post till 2010.
Singh was instrumental in building and re-building many gurdwaras in the country and abroad, especially the Akal Takht, after Operation Blue Star in 1984. He was involved in the reconstruction of many gurdwaras in Delhi after the anti-Sikh riots of November, 1984.
He was also the chairperson of the Asian Games organising committee when the competition was held in India in 1982. PTI