Continued from “Those Rare Few”
Part - II
P V Narasimha Rao - PM between 1991 and 1996
The facts speak only when the historian calls on them: it is he who decides to which facts to give the floor, and in what order or context - Edward Hallett Carr
It was a shivering cold day on December 23, 2004. A former Prime Minister passed away in All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi. He was 83. The veteran politician had been an integral part of the Indian National Congress since independence. A former Chief Minister and holder of several key Cabinet portfolios, he served as India’s 9th Prime Minister from 1991 to 1996, during which he was responsible for overseeing a most crucial period of historic economic transformation and social upheaval.
Egged on by the almighty High Command, the Congress leaders directed the family to cremate him in Hyderabad, and not in Delhi, where all other ex-Prime Ministers had been cremated. The hundreds of acres around Raj Ghat dotted by Shantivan, Shakti Sthal, and Veer Bhumi - dedicated to the memory of Jawahar Lal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi respectively - are exclusively reserved for the cremation of the members of the royal family (including Sanjay Gandhi) or those who had unwavering faith in the First Family. Narasimha Rao’s body was not even allowed even inside the AICC building in the capital.
All this macabre drama was not the final humiliation of Pamulaparti Venkata Narasimha Rao.
It was December 28, 2009. The Indian National Congress was celebrating with usual pomp and show the 125th anniversary of the party which not only won India her independence from alien rule but also steered the course of her history as a sovereign state. Sonia Gandhi, as the Party President delivered a fifteen minute oration on the occasion reading from her written script recapitulating the great achievements of the Party. The most significant attribute of the now-forgotten address was that she chose to ignore altogether the name and work of that heretic called P V Narasimha Rao.
Ignore altogether? Yes, most brazenly and most deliberately. The reason was simple. He had dared to deviate from the chosen path of Nehruvian socialist pattern of society to save the country from the ignominy of loan default and all that without the approval of the Queen Dowager. Instead, she had the temerity to say that Rajiv Gandhi alone scripted the course of economic policies that were followed by the government for the following five years.
Historian E H Carr whom I’ve quoted above pointed out how the historian chooses to align his facts: “he decides to which facts to give the floor, and in what order or context.” Carr didn’t mention the prerogative of the politicians to wish facts away altogether out of existence. Perhaps that doesn’t happen elsewhere and it’s our prerogative alone.
Taking lead from the Congress chief, the Party faithful spare no attempt to undermine Rao’s legacy on every available occasion by denying him the credit for fostering economic reforms and thereby charting a new direction of the country’s socio-economic destiny. Instead, the Congress Party lavishes all praise on Manmohan Singh as the author of the desperately needed economic reforms in 1991. They blissfully forget who appointed Manmohan Singh and provided him both the brief and the political cover to steer the new course.
After Rajiv Gandhi
Allow me, dear readers, to deviate a little to put Rao’s Prime Ministership in historical perspective.
Rajiv Gandhi’s inglorious full-term Prime Ministership (1984-1989) was followed by the short-lived government cobbled together, first, by V P Singh (1989-1990) and thereafter by Chandra Shekhar (1990-1991). The latter was with the outside support of the Congress. In the spring of 1991, Rajiv Gandhi decided to precipitate a new election which led to Chandra Shekhar’s resignation on 6 March 1991.
The 1991 elections were also termed as the ‘Mandal-Mandir’ elections after the two most important poll issues confronting the country: the Mandal Commission fallout and the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid controversy.
A day after the first round of polling took place on 20 May 1991, Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by LTTE while campaigning at Sriperembud in Tamil Nadu. The remaining election days were postponed until mid-June and voting finally took place on 12 and 15 June. Incidentally, voting in this election was the lowest ever in parliamentary elections with just 53 per cent of the electorate choosing to exercising their right to vote.
Since the assassination took place after first phase of polling in 211 of 534 constituencies and the balance constituencies went to polls after the assassination, the 1991 election results varied dramatically between these phases. The Congress party, expectedly, did poorly in the constituencies where polling was held before the assassination but, riding on the sympathy wave following Rajiv’s killing, did well in the constituencies that went to poll after thereafter.
However, no party could get a clear majority. Congress emerged as the single largest party with 232 seats while the BJP won 120 seats out of 521 seats.
Sonia Gandhi who had by then emerged as the king-maker behind the scene - a role which she deems her prerogative - first offered the post to the then vice president (later President of India), Shankar Dayal Sharma. The message was carried to him by Aruna Asaf Ali, a leftist leader and close friend of the Nehru family. Natwar Singh claims to have escorted her. Sharma’s response was that he was “touched and honored”, but his age and health would not allow him to “do justice to the most important office in the country”. What touching humility! (Later, you’ll recall, his health improved dramatically within a year to take over in 1992 as the country’s President.)
On May 19, 1991, the seasoned Maratha leader Sharad Pawar who had been eating his heart to become Prime Minister, announced that he was a candidate. Arjun Singh too threw his hat in the electoral ring . Narasimha Rao also announced that he was a candidate.
On June 20, 1991, the Congress Parliamentary Party elected Narasimha Rao as Prime Minister because the overwhelming majority of the members from entire south India and even Orissa and Bengal chose Narasimha Rao as Prime Minister. Narasimha Rao, hence, was the country’s first elected Prime Minister. He was not nominated.
So, on June 21, 1991, exactly a month after the assassination of Rajiv, Rao, the first politician from the South and who had planned retirement from politics and had actually packed his belongings to move to Hyderabad, was sworn in as prime minister. In keeping with the practice established in Indira Gandhi’s time, he shrewdly held on to both the offices of PM and the Congress president, although he had promised to vacate the Congress presidency for Arjun Singh, his main rival for the job.
That’s how a rank outsider came to head the Government for the next five years And if India, today, has managed to shed its image of snake charmers and turned into a major industrial hub and a promising economic superpower in the making, a very significant part of the credit for this transformation must go to Rao due to his unprecedented bold economic reforms.
Just as there is transportation Before Henry Ford and transportation After Henry Ford, and there is cinema Before Satyajit Ray and cinema After Satyajit Ray, there is, verily India before Narasimha Rao and India After Narasimha Rao.
His tenure as Prime Minister marks indeed, in the most literal sense, a watershed in our history since it brought into being a paradigm shift in the direction that that the polity moves.
It was, undoubtedly, a paradigm shift because he was the first person outside the Nehru-Gandhi family to serve as PM for full 5 years. However, the year 1991 was the worst year (since independence) for anybody to assume PM office. The collapse of Soviet Union had grim repercussions across the world. India being a socialist economy was severely affected. Nehru’s economic model which was oriented towards License Raj, red tape & bureaucracy leading to large scale corruption had resulted in 2-3% annual growth (which was mocked as “Hindu rate of growth” by economists, a term coined by Prof. Raj Krishna). Subsequent protection of such a model by Indira Gandhi had led the nation into economic standstill.
Rao’s response was truly leonine. Bhagwat Puran tell us how Narasimha, a half-lion avtar of the Hindu god Visnu, came to the world to destroy the demon king Hiranyakashipu. Narsimha Rao rose to the occasion to take drastic measures to save the county by jettisoning the Nehruvian socialism, firmly in place to control, in Lenin’s classic phrase the commanding heights of the economy. Rao replaced it with market economy. That was a landmark decision. Truly leonine! Rao’s decision was based on the faith that the fall of Berlin Wall a couple of years back was a harbinger of sea changes the world was about to witness.
However, the great irony is that this savior of modern India had by the late 1980s, almost retired from politics. He had been denied a Congress ticket in 1991, a year after his scathing essay ‘The Great Suicide’ was published anonymously by Mainstream. However, everyone who matters in Delhi knew that Rao and the Mainstream editor late Nikhil Chakravarty were close friends and that it was Rao who used to write a column under the pseudonym ‘Congressman’. In the essay Rao had blamed Rajiv Gandhi for frittering away a mammoth mandate and blamed it on his ignorance, arrogance, political insecurity and, above all, naiveté. Personally, he did not believe Rajiv Gandhi had taken any money in the Bofors scam but felt that the then Prime Minister knew who had taken the money.
Rao also had the audacity to have said in high level meeting: “Why should the Congress party be hitched to the Nehru-Gandhi family like train compartments to the engine?. Hence, his ostracism from the mainstream politics.
A dejected Rao was preparing to wind up his establishment in Delhi: close his bank accounts, leave Delhi and take over as the head of a Mutt in a southern state when Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated. Rao seized the opportunity and bounced back.
Rising to the Occasion
The situation in the country was dire indeed. Thanks to Rajiv Gandhi’s ill- conceived liberal import policy - color television sets so that people could watch the Asian games - the country was facing an unprecedented foreign exchange crisis. To our ever-lasting embarrassment India was forced to airfreight 47 tons of gold to the Bank of England as collateral to borrow from the IMF to tide over the situation. Rao also had the sagacity to act promptly and positively to the suggestion to change the country’s economic policy from Nehruvain socialism to liberalization and globalization. And that decision marked a decisive turning point in our post-Independence history but for which India still would have been a economic laggard forever in the comity of nations.
Rao’s immediate task thereafter was to find a capable administrator to see the economic U-turn through. He turned to the seasoned economist-cum-administrator I G Patel, who had just retired as director of the renowned London School of Economics, a position for which he was selected by an international selection board and was internationally known own for his formidable intellectual powers in the select company of central bankers and economic statesmen such as the “Committee of the Thirty” set up by the former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. I G, it may be recalled, made in his life time his mea culpa for the failed model of centrally planned development adopted by India in the 1950s. But he was never uninhibitedly committed to the market economy. This reflected his aversion to any “isms”, his pragmatism and his inclination towards conciliation. Patel gratefully declined Prime Minister Rao’s offer on grounds of health. Rao asked him to suggest another name. IG suggested Manmohan Singh.
“But he is a dyed-in-the-wool Nehruvian socialist judging by the reports of the committees he headed.” Rao observed.
“Nothing of the sort. He’s only an expert carpenter. Give him your design and he’ll make what you want,” IG must have advised with his tongue firmly in cheek and a twinkle in his eyes since he was running down his own profession.
Roa turned to Manmohan Singh who, recovering from heart surgery was unfailingly ready to serve any government as I once spelled out in a piece in these columns, entitled “The Man Who Served Seven Kings.”
Continued to “Prime Minister Who Took the Road ...”