RLD Chief Ajit Singh (File Image: PTI)
In the mid-1980s, a man who had nothing to do with Indian politics until he turned 46 years old suddenly got catapulted to the national centre stage. No, we aren’t talking about former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi here, but someone who mirrored Gandhi in many ways and was briefly India’s de facto Leader of Opposition — by virtue of being the President of the Janata Party.
Ajit Singh, 82, who passed away on May 6 after contracting COVID-19, enjoyed fleeting political stardom in the late eighties but could not carry on that momentum in his latter career. It was mostly his own doing as the veteran politician, an eight-term Member of Parliament and Union Cabinet minister under four Prime Ministers, changed parties and alliances at will.
Ajit Singh was a computer scientist based in the United States for 15 years till he returned to India in the early 1980s. It was a paralytic stroke suffered by his father, former Prime Minister and Lok Dal President Chaudhary Charan Singh, in 1985, which necessitated Ajit Singh to trade his trademark suits with white kurta-pajamas. The Jat patriarch never recovered from the stroke, and a succession war erupted in his party when Ajit Singh replaced Mulayam Singh Yadav as Leader of Opposition in the Uttar Pradesh assembly. Soon, the party split into the Lok Dal(A) led by Aijit Singh and Lok Dal(B) led by HN Bahuguna.
When a weakened Janata Party attempted to widen its base in 1987, it got Lok Dal(A) and the Maneka Gandhi-led Sanjay Vichar Manch to join its ranks. By early 1988, Ajit Singh was nominated as the Janata Party President replacing Chandra Sekhar. Later that year, when the Janata Party along with Lok Dal(B), Congress(S) and the VP Singh-led Jan Morcha merged to form the Janata Dal, Ajit Singh was the second-in-command to VP Singh as the lone secretary-general of the new outfit.
As VP Singh went on to become Prime Minister in December 1989, Ajit Singh held the industries portfolio as Cabinet minister after being pipped in the race to be UP Chief Minister by Mulayam Singh Yadav.
Ajit Singh stuck with VP Singh when Chandra Sekhar split the party to form a minority government, but the two Singhs fell out when Janata Dal was trounced in the 1991 general elections.
In the changed scenario following Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, Ajit Singh wanted to do business with the Congress but VP Singh was against it. Ajit Singh split the Janata Dal and formed his own splinter outfit called Janata Dal(A), and this was probably the beginning of his downward spiral.
When the Babri Masjid was demolished in 1992, Ajit Singh famously remarked that he could see “RSS knickers under Narasimha Rao’s Dhoti” and yet, he saw nothing untoward in joining the Congress under Rao a year later. Ajit Singh served as the Minister for Food for a year (1995-96) in Rao’s government, and would quit the Congress to float the Bharatiya Kisan Kamdar Party (BKKP) in the run-up to the UP assembly elections in 1996.
Ajit Singh lost an election for the first time in 1998 from Baghpat, a seat held by his family since 1977, but wrested it back the following year by allying his party, now rechristened Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), with the Congress.
When Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee walked out of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in 2001, AB Vajpayee invited Ajit Singh to join his Cabinet as Minister of Agriculture to shore up the numbers. However, Ajit Singh became expendable when Banerjee got back to supporting the NDA, and when faced with the prospect of being shunted out to a less important ministry, he quit the Vajpayee government in 2003.
In the political wilderness, Ajit Singh joined forces with his bête noire Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party and it wasn’t until 2011 that he was back on the national stage, when he joined the second Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government as Civil Aviation Minister. It hardly mattered to Ajit Singh that he had contested the 2009 Lok Sabha elections as part of the NDA.
In many ways, it was the communal riots in Muzaffarnagar in 2013 which effectively ended Ajit Singh’s political career. In his backyard of Western UP, Jats and Muslims were pitted against each other in these riots, and his entire vote base switched to the BJP overnight. Ajit Singh never recovered from the loss in the 2014 general elections as his RLD went on to return zero seats despite being part of a ‘Grand Alliance’ in the 2019 general elections.
Chaudhary Ajit Singh was the classic weathercock politician who switched parties and alliances regularly for greener pastures. Nevertheless, for someone who took to politics at the age of 46, he proved to be a wily politician.
Ajit Singh’s lifelong demand that a separate state of Harit Pradesh be carved out of UP remains an unfulfilled ambition.