During an interview to his preferred news agency, ANI, on Sunday, Union Home Minister Amit Shah alluded to the lack of democracy within the Congress party by asking whether anyone outside the Gandhi family had served as Congress president since the late Indira Gandhi. Shah’s comment, ironically, came shortly after Prime Minister Narendra Modi had just finished paying rich tributes during the latest episode of his Mann ki Baat to one such non-Gandhi – P.V. Narasimha Rao – who held the Congress presidency for over five years, between June 1991 and September 1996.
That the Congress, which thunders in supreme fury each time Shah or the BJP attack the Gandhi family, refrained from even correcting the Home Minister’s false assertion despite having a plethora of reasons to do so, is perhaps borne out of its own guilty conscience.
Rao was no ordinary Congressman. A freedom fighter who came from humble beginnings, Rao rose up the political ranks winning multiple assembly and parliamentary elections to ultimately, in an unexpected turn of fate, assume both the Congress presidency in wake of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in May 1991 and be sworn-in as India’s 9th Prime Minister later that same year. He served the dual role – of Prime Minister and Congress president – between 1991 and 1996; a distinction he shared with Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi.
Yet, on a day that marked the beginning of Rao’s birth centenary year, while Modi recalled the former Prime Minister’s leadership ability and urged all Indians to “try to know as much as possible about his life and thoughts”, the Congress and its leaders, Rahul Gandhi included, only paid a token tribute on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. In stark contrast to the Congress party’s tepid tribute to the late Prime Minister, Telangana Chief Minister K. Chandrashekhar Rao announced year-long celebrations across the state to mark Rao’s centenary year, hailing the leader as a “beloved son of Telangana”.
The Congress party’s nearly criminal neglect of one of its most prominent leaders in recent memory and its unwillingness to even confer credit on Rao for his most enduring legacy – the New Economic Policy of 1991 – is, arguably, the result of a combination of factors that came to the fore during his prime ministerial stint. These include his inability – or, as many argue, his tacit complicity – in preventing the demolition of Ayodhya’s Babri Masjid by Hindutva goons and a prime ministerial tenure marred by financial scams like the JMM Bribery Case and the Jain Hawala Scandal. What is, however, singled out often as the definite reason for the Congress party’s evident contempt for Rao is his insistence on running the party and his government without acting as an extension cord that drew power from the Nehru-Gandhis.
In the immediate aftermath of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination during the 1991 general election campaign in which the Congress was hoping to bounce back to power; most senior Congress leaders wanted the party leadership to be passed to Sonia Gandhi.
Former President Pranab Mukherjee recalls in The Turbulent Years: 1980-1996 (Rupa; 2016), “Soniaji declined the invitation… following Sonia ji’s refusal, it was decided that P.V. Narasimha Rao, the senior-most member of the CWC (part of the committee since 1976) and chairman of the Central Election Committee, would be invited to assume presidentship of the party.” At the time, according to Mukherjee, Rao had “essentially retired from active politics owing to age and indifferent health” but Sonia’s refusal to take the party’s helm brought the Congress veteran back to the centre stage of national politics. Rao’s appointment as prime minister, after the Congress emerged as the single-largest party with 232 seats in the 1991 polls, too wasn’t a foregone conclusion. Mukherjee says though Rao, as Congress president, was the “natural choice” for Prime Minister but Sharad Pawar also decided to stake his claim. Other Congress leaders of the time have also named veterans like Arjun Singh lobbying for the premiership.
With a majority of the Congress Parliamentary Party backing Rao, the leadership question was settled in his favour. The stalwart who could famously speak in 16 languages and counted among his achievements the rare feat of having been elected to the Lok Sabha previously from three different states – his native Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Orissa – unpacked his luggage that was bound for his village in undivided Andhra’s Warangal district in just a few days.
Rao had taken over as Prime Minister at a time when India faced a massive balance of payments crisis which had forced the government to deposit 47 tonnes of gold with the Bank of England in exchange for monetary support to help the country keep its payment obligations. This difficult time was also, arguably, among Rao’s finest hours as prime minister. Ducking the trend of giving the finance portfolio to a senior and experienced colleague, Rao chose Dr. Manmohan Singh, a widely celebrated economist who had only recently taken over as chairman of the University Grants Commission, for the job. It was, as has often been written about, an unpopular choice. Rao backed Singh to the hilt, giving him a free hand to redraw the general budget – a blueprint of which had been prepared by Singh’s predecessor Yashwant Sinha during the brief tenure of the previous Chandra Shekhar government.
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The New Economic Policy that Singh presented, thus opening up India’s economy to the world, had instantly become a source of condemnation within the country and many of Rao’s cabinet and Congress colleagues were harshly critical of it. However, Rao dug in his heels, allowing Singh to implement the liberalization policy. Some Congressmen, political observers and Rao’s biographer Vinay Sitapati have claimed that the PM’s decision to stand by Singh was also a sign of political dexterity. Sitapati believes that given the uproar over Singh’s announcements, Rao did not wish to become the “target of fire”. Singh became the “body armour for Rao”, says Sitapati.
However, by 1993 although the economic reforms set in motion began to gradually pay off, Rao’s standing within the Congress got shaky. The demolition of the Babri Masjid had allowed Gandhi-family loyalists within the government – like Arjun Singh, Natwar Singh, Makhanlal Fotedar and several others – to push a narrative of Rao’s centre-right leanings. It is around this time that Rao had reportedly begun to limit his interactions with Sonia Gandhi. By 1995 there had also been rumours within the Congress and government of Rao using the Intelligence Bureau to keep tabs on his own cabinet colleagues to ascertain how many of them were more loyal to Sonia than they were to him.
Ahead of the 1996 Lok Sabha polls, the distrust that a large section of Congress leaders had in Rao led to several veterans form a breakaway faction of the party – the All India Indira Congress (Tiwari) – under N.D. Tiwari and Arjun Singh. The Tiwari Congress was wiped out in the polls and the Congress, under Narasimha Rao, lost power. A few months later, Sitaram Kesri replaced Rao as Congress president and the former PM gradually withdrew from public life; a lonely man with few friends despite a long-running political career.
Two years later, when Sonia Gandhi finally plunged into active politics and took over the Congress presidency, Rao’s contributions to the party were swiftly forgotten. Only a handful of Congressmen, Pranab Mukherjee and Jitendra Prasada among them, would occasionally call on Rao. In December 2004 when Rao passed away following a cardiac arrest, the Congress did not even extend to him and his family the basic courtesy of allowing the former PM and party president’s body being kept in state at the party headquarters at 24, Akbar Road. Though his family wanted Rao to be cremated in Delhi – his karmabhoomi of three decades – the Congress objected. Rao was cremated in Hyderabad instead.
The tokenism that the Congress has begun to display in recent years by remembering Rao through the occasional tweet on his birth or death anniversary may be because of a belated and still lax realization of the man’s contribution towards laying a strong foundation for India’s liberalized economy which now finds itself being shattered under the Modi government. Today, if Chandrashekhar Rao or even the BJP tries to appropriate Narasimha Rao as one of their own to slight the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, the Congress party has only itself to blame.
(Views expressed are personal)