P V Narasimha Rao: An undermined and unsung reformer

Prime Minister Narendra Modi made it a point to recall an illustrious predecessor, P V Narasimha Rao, on his centenary. Discarded by the grand old party he once led, Rao has joined the pantheon of Congressmen valorised by the BJP: Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, Sardar Vallabhai Patel, Bhim Rao Ambedkar and Jayaprakash Narayan.

For the sangh parivar, Rao was a Chanakya, a wily brahmin nationalist. For the Congress leadership, he was (with apologies to Boney M) a veritable 'Rao Rao Rasputin'. They saw him as sinister and manipulative, bent on altering the balance of power in the Congress by marginalising the state satraps and Nehru-Gandhi loyalists.

Arguably, Rao presided over the most transformative period in post-Independence India, boldly going where no prime minister had gone before. His unshackling of India's economy, which was growing at 7.5 percent per annum by the time he demitted office, was never acknowledged. The credit was given to the then Finance minister, Manmohan Singh, who – sadly – went along with it.

The party had no lack of prime ministerial hopefuls in 1991, but the unassuming Rao had been handpicked by Sonia Gandhi. He was a loyalist, after all. Until that point, he was best known as the Home minister who had sat with hands folded as anti-Sikh riots raged through Delhi after the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984.

Sonia was brought into play against Rao. The glacial pace of the investigation into Rajiv Gandhi's assassination upset her and Rao's undeniable proximity to Chandraswami, a person of interest in the probe, raised suspicion. The demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 strengthened the dissidents, who raised the issue of Rao's inaction before and during the assault on the structure. For his chief critic, Arjun Singh, a secularist to the core, this was tantamount to conspiring with the sangh parivar. Sonia loyalists split from the party under the leadership of the veteran N D Tewari in 1994 (Rao had survived a no-trust motion the previous year).

A year later, Sonia launched a political salvo against Rao in Amethi. At a public rally, she raised both points of contention: the increasingly messy assassination probe and the rise of “divisive forces” ie, the BJP. Even so, an opinion poll in late 1995 found that most Congress MPs backed Rao as PM.

However, powerful forces were arrayed against Rao in and outside his party. Corruption charges were being levelled against Rao loyalists and the arrest of Chandraswami was demanded. The Left had characterised the Structural Adjustment Programmes that accompanied economic liberalisation as anti-poor and ecologically destructive. The BJP, meanwhile, rode the Mandir wave. The subsequent fractured mandate, with the Congress getting the lowest tally ever up to that point, was the turning point for Rao.

From then on, it was downhill all the way, right until his death in 2004. Although Sonia appeared to accord him a certain deference after she became Congress president in 1998, the role that he had played in the economic transformation of India was underplayed and it was Rajiv Gandhi who was touted as the great reformer. (Later, Manmohan Singh's contribution was emphasised and Rao forgotten.)

Rao was plagued by legal battles and gradually became persona non grata in his own party (although some members from the South continued to publicly acknowledge his contribution). His son, too, faced arrest in the Rs 133-crore Urea scam. With his political career clearly over, the best Rao could hope for was to survive the backlash. He busied himself with writing and published a work of fiction (The Insider) he had started while still in office.

Eventually, he was acquitted of all the charges against him. His economic reforms were continued by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who held him in high regard. Nor would the sangh parivar ever forget that even as he imposed President's Rule in Uttar Pradesh after the fall of the Babri Masjid, the idol of Ram Lalla was protected. His presidential reference to the apex court put the question of a pre-existing temple below the demolished structure front and centre. His version of the Ayodhya events, penned during his final years, would be published only posthumously.

He died unsung, denied a final farewell by the party he had served. It took a BJP government to accord him a memorial at Ekta Sthal and a BJP PM to mark his centenary.

The writer is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.

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