The life and times of Kalyan Singh, BJP’s OBC icon and its first chief minister in UP

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Former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Kalyan Singh, a leading force of the Ram temple movement in Ayodhya and an efficient Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) administrator credited with working for the backward sections, died in Lucknow on Saturday, the hospital where he was undergoing treatment said in a statement. He was 89.

Singh, a former governor of Rajasthan, was admitted to the intensive care unit of Sanjay Gandhi Post Graduate Institute of Medical Sciences on 4 July in a serious condition. He died due to sepsis and multi-organ failure, the hospital said in the statement.

Singh was the chief minister when the 16th century Babri mosque was demolished in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992. He was among the 32 people, including BJP seniors LK Advani and MM Joshi, acquitted in the demolition case in September 2020.

His death triggered an outpouring of grief. Prime Minister Narendra Modi led the nation in paying tributes to the Lodhi community leader, who he said gave “voice to crores of people belonging to the marginalised sections of society” and “made numerous efforts towards the empowerment of farmers, youngsters and women”.

“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,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted.

Union home minister Amit Shah said the country lost an “honest politician” and a “patriot”, comparing Singh with a banyan tree under which the BJP’s organisation flourished and spread. He said Singh delivered a crime-free and people-centric government that also took big steps in the field of education.

President Ram Nath Kovind said Singh “had a magical connect with masses”. “As chief minister of UP, he determinedly pursued clean politics and purged governance of criminals and corruption,” he said on Twitter.

Uttar Pradesh announced a three-day mourning and a holiday on Monday, when Singh’s last rites will be performed. His body will be taken to his home and then to the Vidhan Sabha, where people will pay their tributes.

Born on January 5, 1932, Singh first became a legislator in 1967. He was then a member of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the political predecessor of the BJP.

Singh, an Other Backward Classes (OBC) leader from western Uttar Pradesh, propelled the BJP’s rise in the politically crucial state. And the BJP — often associated with the upper castes by its rivals — saw in him its answer to the caste-based politics in the 1980s and 1990s.

Singh is seen as the strategist who rallied non-Yadav OBCs behind the BJP in a social engineering success — which the party has built on over the years to reap electoral benefits.

He was appointed twice as the chief minister. And twice he quit the BJP, but returned on both occasions to the party that made him the politician and administrator he was.

It was in 1991 that he became the first CM of a BJP government in Uttar Pradesh. In December 1992, the Babri Masjid was demolished as the campaign to build the temple at the disputed site picked momentum.

As the chief minister, Singh had filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court, assuring that the mosque will be protected. But he had also ordered police not to open fire at protesters, arguing later that any such action would have led to much bloodshed.

Admitting failure to protect the mosque, he resigned the same evening. The state assembly was dissolved as riots erupted at several places in the country.

In the next assembly elections in November 1993, he contested from two seats — Atrauli and Kasganj — and won both. Though the BJP emerged as the single-largest party, a coalition government of the Samajwadi Party (SP)-Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) came to power. Singh was leader of the opposition in the UP assembly.

He got his second shot at the top post in September 1997, becoming CM again under a six-month rotation formula with the BSP — after elections in the previous year. The arrangement collapsed soon with the BSP withdrawing support. But, backed by a group of disgruntled opposition members, his government survived.

Singh was removed from the CM’s post by the party high command in November 1999. Later, he was also formally expelled from the party over remarks targeting the party’s top leadership.

He left the party after a tumultuous phase — only to return in 2004 before the general elections. Singh had once said it was a “political blunder” to have rejoined the BJP.

Then, his second parting came 2009, ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, when he said he felt “humiliated” by the party and complained that he had hardly any say in the selection of candidates in his state. In 2010, he also floated the Jan Kranti Party, but let his son head it – till it “merged” with the BJP. Soon after his Raj Bhavan term ended in 2019, Singh formally rejoined the BJP as a primary member.

As the Babri Masjid demolition case trial dragged on, Singh enjoyed immunity from trial as he held a gubernatorial post.

After demitting office as Rajasthan governor, he appeared before the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) court, which acquitted him and 31 others accused of conspiracy in the demolition of the mosque in September 2020. The judge concluded that there was no evidence to show that the demolition was pre-planned.

“Maybe it was destined that the structure would be demolished with me as chief minister,” he told a newspaper ahead of the 2020 “bhoomi pujan” for the Ram temple, now being built at the once disputed site in Ayodhya after a historic Supreme Court verdict.

“Had there been no demolition, probably the courts too would have ordered status quo,” he said then. And his last wish, he said, was to live till the temple comes up.

With PTI inputs

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