A scholar and a politician

Print edition : January 14, 2005

H. SATISH

P.V. Narasimha Rao, 1921-2004.

INDIA's first Prime Minister from outside the Nehru family to complete his full term in office, Pamulaparti Venkata Narasimha Rao, passed away at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi on December 23 following congestive heart failure.

Narasimha Rao's political career spanning four decades, first in Andhra Pradesh and later in New Delhi, was a remarkable story of how an ordinary individual with humble social origins and unobtrusive behaviour could climb the political ladder principally on the basis of his intellectual strength and modest style.

Narasimha Rao was born on June 28, 1921, at Vangara village in Karimnagar district of Andhra Pradesh. His father P. Ranga Rao and mother Rukminiamma hailed from agrarian families. He had to discontinue his pre-university studies when he was debarred from college for participating in a protest against the Nizam government's ban on singing Vande Mataram in his college. He continued his education at Fergusson College, Pune, and Nagpur University to earn his B.Sc and LL.B degrees with distinction. He declined the offer of a magistrate's post and practised law in Hyderabad.

He joined the Congress as a follower of the Chief Minister of the erstwhile Hyderabad State, Burgula Ramakrishna Rao. He became a member of the All India Congress Committee (AICC) in 1951 and a member of the State Legislative Assembly in 1957. He first became State Minister in 1962 and held the portfolios of Law and Information. He held various ministerial positions in the State until he became Chief Minister in 1971.

Narasimha Rao's election as Chief Minister surprised many people. In the caste-ridden politics of Andhra Pradesh, a Brahmin occupying the post of Chief Minister was unthinkable. As one who knew him intimately wrote later, the fact that it happened spoke volumes about his qualities. A non-controversial figure of some stature, he could not be overlooked. As others canvassed for ministerial berths, the post came to him naturally. When he succeeded K. Brahmananda Reddi, following the separate Telengana movement, Narasimha Rao was a nonentity in Congress circles in New Delhi, which expected D. Sanjivaiah, who had more political clout, to get the post.

Narasimha Rao was not an expert in manipulative politics then. He came under fire from party dissidents from the day he took charge. He did not seem fully equipped to face the challenge. A political observer recalled: "He was shuttling most of the time between Hyderabad and New Delhi. In fact, he seemed to be spending much of his time in the national capital, with the result that his own Chief Secretary could meet him more easily in New Delhi than in Hyderabad." The cleavage in the State Cabinet between Telengana and Andhra leaders began to widen and the Chief Minister was in no position to halt the trend. The Andhra dissidents alleged that he was a stooge of the Telengana leaders. The State suffered the ignominy of coming under President's Rule even when the ruling party enjoyed an absolute majority in the Assembly.

This early setback in his career seemed to have further mellowed Narasimha Rao, who seemed to prefer being discreet and neutral than being seen as a factional leader. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi soon appointed him a general secretary of the Congress, ignoring his disastrous stint in the State. He was one of the few Congress leaders to get elected to the Lok Sabha in the post-Emergency general elections in 1977. Indira Gandhi liked Narasimha Rao's urbanity, intellectual qualities and suave manners and began to rely more on him than the Congress president. This trend continued until the entry of her son Sanjay Gandhi into active politics. Sanjay Gandhi found that Narasimha Rao was not the kind of person who could be jostled about and got him removed from the post of general secretary.

Narasimha Rao's patience once again endeared him to Indira Gandhi, who brought him back as the Minister for External Affairs when she returned to power in 1980. Narasimha Rao was the Union Home Minister during the anti-Sikh carnage following Indira Gandhi's assassination in 1984. The allegation that he did not take effective steps to halt the violence remained unsubstantiated before the two commissions set up to inquire into the incidents - the Ranganath Mishra Commission set up by the Rajiv Gandhi government and the Nanavati Commission set up by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government.

Narasimha Rao continued to be a senior Minister in the Rajiv Gandhi government, holding key portfolios. The Congress' debacle in the 1989 general elections seemed to have influenced Narasimha Rao to provide an academic critique of Rajiv Gandhi's record in office, albeit in the form of a lengthy article in Mainstream under the pen name "Congressman". In the article, titled "The Great Suicide", Narasimha Rao indicated that he had a poor opinion of Rajiv Gandhi as a leader and as a man and offered his pessimistic overview of the prevailing political situation (Frontline, November 17, 1995). He wrote of the negative consequences of Rajiv Gandhi's massive election victory in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi's assassination, which he claimed coincided with the resurgence of right-wing Hindu forces. He felt that the victory introduced a peculiar political insecurity in Rajiv Gandhi's mind, leading to a brash, immature and self-destructive style of functioning. His brilliant critique ended by defining the four-headed Frankenstein that stared India in the face - the Hindu-Muslim cleavage, the confrontation between the backward and forward classes, tension between the Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes and non-SCs/STs, and the rich-poor chasm.

Frontline's reproduction of the January 1990 article, curiously, did not elicit a rebuttal from Narasimha Rao himself, though the editor of Mainstream, Nikhil Chakravartty, repudiated Frontline's identification of the author of the article.

FORTUNATELY for Narasimha Rao, Rajiv Gandhi's supporters, who plumped for him when it was faced with the task of choosing the Prime Minister following the Congress' victory in the 1991 general elections, was not aware that he wrote the article. As journalistic accounts of the transition of power in 1991 reveal, Narasimha Rao's proven competence as an administrator - not to speak of his erudition and experience - had little to do with his election as the leader of the Congress Parliamentary Party (CPP). The party leadership's first choice was probably Arjun Singh, the former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister and the current Union Human Resource Development Minister. The Congress leader from Maharashtra and the present Union Agriculture Minister, Sharad Pawar, too was a strong contender.

Arjun Singh sensed the support that Narasimha Rao commanded from Congress MPs from the four southern States, dropped out even before the race began, and threw his weight behind the latter. Apparently, he felt a tussle in the party, especially when it lacked a clear majority in the Lok Sabha, could affect its chances of regaining power. At the June 20, 1991 meeting of the CPP, Arjun Singh proposed Narasimha Rao's name to the CPP leader's post. The proposal was seconded by former Kerala Chief Minister K. Karunakaran. For the party leaders, between Sharad Pawar and Narasimha Rao the choice would inevitably have been the latter, in view of his lack of base within the party organisation, which they thought, could make him vulnerable to pressure. Pawar's overpowering personality, on the other hand, was not in tune with the Congress' ethos. It became clear to the Sharad Pawar camp that it enjoyed the support of not more than 10 per cent of the CPP members in the Lok Sabha and it decided to support Narasimha Rao.

The lack of majority in the Lok Sabha hardly bothered Narasimha Rao, who averred then that `politics was the art of the possible'. The BJP, which had a sizable presence in the 10th Lok Sabha, did not make an issue of the Congress' lack of majority then, as no other combination of parties was in a position to form a stable government. L.K. Advani, BJP president, compared Narasimha Rao to Lal Bahadur Shastri, emphasising what he considered as their common traits, a non-Nehru family background and a clean image.

Narasimha Rao went on to complete his term, at the end of which his erstwhile admirers became his staunch critics. The party leadership was disenchanted with him, but was unable to pose a challenge to him, in view of the lack of alternatives. Arjun Singh and N.D. Tiwari quit the party and the government, to launch another party. Narasimha Rao, by then, had matured as a modern Chanakya to keep intra-party dissidence within limits. Towards the end of his term, the hawala scandal temporarily tarnished the image of his detractors, both within the government and in the Opposition. Narasimha Rao himself had weathered many a storm created by various scandals of his own government, chief among them being the securities scam and stockbroker Harshad Mehta's allegations that the Prime Minister had taken bribes. If 1991 brought him to power as the Prime Minister by sheer chance, 1996 showed that only Narasimha Rao, by his `masterly inactivity' - a euphemism to describe his tendency to defer decisions on crucial issues - could have ensured the survival of a minority government against all odds.

Narasimha Rao's failure to prevent the Sangh Parivar's demolition of the Babri Masjid is cited as an instance of irreparable damage his inaction - not dismissing the Kalyan Singh government in Uttar Pradesh despite clear warnings from various quarters - caused.

Narasimha Rao, however, placed before the Liberhan Commission inquiring into the demolition an elaborate rationalisation of his actions as Prime Minister, which seemed like an abdication of responsibility. He told the Commission that he was not given sufficient political and legal backing for any firm measures that he might have contemplated. The imposition of President's Rule in Uttar Pradesh, he suggested, was ruled out by the National Integration Council, which had met before the demolition, and the Supreme Court had refused to countenance his plea that the Central government should be empowered as a "receiver" to take custody of the Babri Masjid site. He blamed his former Cabinet colleagues S.B. Chavan, Arjun Singh and Sharad Pawar for squandering an opportunity to resolve the issue, when he fully authorised them in November 1992 to find an appropriate solution.

In his written submission to the Liberhan Commission in 2002, Narasimha Rao said that while open violation or defiance could be detected and dealt with, covert sabotage with a lawful face was by its very nature undetectable. He admitted that he was "surprised" by the then Uttar Pradesh government's "covert sabotage" (its complicity in demolition) because it was the first of its kind. He claimed that he could not have directed the Central forces stationed near Ayodhya to rein in the Sangh Parivar activists as he had no authority to do so.

Narasimha Rao's alibi of helplessness may not find many takers, especially when one considers the fact that he did not stand up to his firm and unequivocal commitment to reconstruct the mosque, which he expressed soon after the demolition. His government turned a blind eye to the makeshift temple that came up at the site.

In the post-1996 phase of the Congress, Narasimha Rao was gradually sidelined, embroiled as he was in litigation involving his personal integrity during his term as Prime Minister. Although he was convicted by a trial court in the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha bribery case, he was acquitted by the Delhi High Court. He was acquitted in the St. Kitts and Lakhubhai Pathak cases too.

To the Congress, whose leaders have since revived their loyalty to the Nehru-Gandhi family, Narasimha Rao perhaps belonged to a different era, an interregnum so essential for the party and the family to come to terms with each other. The party and its leaders - including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who was Finance Minister during Narasimha Rao's tenure - remembered him after his demise as the "father of economic reforms" and as a harbinger of the neoliberal economic policies. Hopefully, the Congress would choose some other occasion to articulate an objective critique of Narasimha Rao's legacy.

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