Veteran Congress leader Kripashankar Singh has deserted the party. The move is not unusual given that the Congress’s fortunes are sinking by the day. Many Congress leaders have already switched over to the BJP and many more are on their way to join the party fold.
Singh leaving the Congress, however, has a special significance.
It’s not like Mumbai, Congress’s birthplace, had any dearth of strong leaders. In fact, many stalwarts from Mumbai have represented the Congress. But post 1980s, Singh had been the face of the party in the multicultural and cosmopolitan Mumbai.
He was the reason why people; voters, to be precise, stayed with the Congress in Mumbai. At the same time, he was also the reason why Mumbaikars hated the Congress.
If you are in a conversation about Singh with a Mumbaikar, who is even slightly aware politically, some of the words and expressions that are sure to come up include loyalist, Delhi’s liaison man, north Indian leader in Mumbai, sycophant, survivor and political fixer. His subservience to the party’s high command not only helped him survive in politics but also propelled his rise.
To put it simply, Singh was the quintessential Congressi in Mumbai.
Coming from very humble roots in eastern Uttar Pradesh’s Jaunpur, Singh came to Mumbai and worked as vegetable vendor just like thousands of north Indians, whom Mumbaiiyas pejoratively refer to as ‘bhaiiyya’.
So, Kripa bhaiyya, as he was known, slowly began making his way into politics. His preferred, or say, only option was Congress, a party which had power but no specific linguistic inclination; basically representing a Mumbai where everyone with talent had opportunity.
Singh surely had the talent to survive not only in politics but also in Congress. He was quick to understand that the Mumbai Congress, being led by Murli Deora then, had a vacancy for a north Indian leader.
It was a time when north Indian voters, aggressively countered by Shiv Sena, were gradually increasing their dominance on Mumbai’s politics and streets.
Shiv Sena’s ‘son of the soil’ politics was ruling Mumbai, hallmarked by a culture of hooliganism. Many a times, attacking Congress in public rallies, Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray used to mention ‘Kripashankar’ in a bid to refer to the ‘character’ of Congress as a party which promoted north Indians.
Sticking to Congress’s character, Kripashankar Singh countered the charge of being ‘non-Marathi’ by speaking in his chaste Marathi. “Hindi mazi aai ani, marathi mazi mavshi (Hindi is my mother, Marathi is my aunt).”
Despite all odds, he was not only made general secretary of Maharashtra Congress, but was also included in the Maharashtra legislative council owing to his loyalty to the family.
In 1999, when Vilasrao Deshmukh, who had been re-inducted into the Congress after his six-year-long suspension from the party was cut short, following the exit of Sharad Pawar, who formed the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), Kripashankar Singh sensed opportunity.
Deshmukh was fairly new for Congress High Command in Delhi, he needed a man who could liaison for him and Singh was the perfect fit for the job.
Singh was made Maharashtra home minister in Deshmukh’s government. But Deshmukh got a taste of Singh’s strong allegiance to the Congress when he saw Singh switch over to the Sushilkumar Shinde camp immediately after Deshmukh was replaced by Shinde on the wishes of High Command.
Singh paid for this later.
When Deshmukh came back as chief minister in 2004, he ensured that Singh remained out of not just his cabinet, but also that of subsequent chief ministers.
Despite this, Singh managed to get the presidentship of the Mumbai Congress. He also survived a sustained campaign by rival factions who targeted him for allegedly assimilating unaccounted wealth.
Interestingly, the investigation started by Mumbai Police’s Economic Offences Wing during Congress government’s tenure finally got a closure in the time of Devendra Fadnavis’s government.
Despite this, Singh continued to remain a part of the Congress delegation that would be present at the Mumbai airport to welcome Sonia and Rahul Gandhi — sometimes on invitation and at other times, even without one.
Singh knew that the mantra to survive in the Congress was to never wait for an invitation to be extended.
Today, when political analysts are unsure about the chances of Congress’s survival, it appears that leaders like Singh always knew how to stay afloat.
Their switching side indicates that ‘that’ Congress is surviving — just that now it is a part of the BJP.