In an era where Congressmen are falling like ninepins to the lure of power, Narasimha Rao nipped in the bud efforts to draw him into leading a rebellion against his party, even when he was being ill-treated in the party
As the Congress belatedly claims former Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao as its own during his birth centenary, it might be served well to recall Rao’s fierce loyalty to the party and his obstinate refusal to split it even though he was being humiliated and treated badly by the party leadership.
In an era where Congressmen are falling like ninepins to the lure of power, and alleged financial inducements by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Rao nipped in the bud efforts to draw him into leading a rebellion against his party. His admonishment to the young Turks who had approached him during the crises in the multiple governments between 1996 and 1999 is relevant even today. He advocated patience to those who were in a hurry to acquire office and, when asked about him being ill-treated in the Congress, he remarked that “I have been in the Congress for 50 years. Forty-eight of those 50 years were good. If things have not gone as I would have liked in the past two years, that does not mean that I should be ungrateful or attempt to destroy the party that made me what I am today.”
Rao’s statement silenced the group Congress MPs from Maharashtra, who had lost their patience with Congress President Sitaram Kesari after the party pulled support to the Deve Gowda government. They had first approached Sharad Pawar to break the Congress to support Gowda, but when the Maratha leader refused, they turned to Rao. Rao told them that life is never made to order, and that one has to learn to take the bad with the good, and balance it.
These young MPs from Maharashtra, many who continue to be loyal to the party despite the odds, acknowledge sotto voce that interactions with Rao had been a great learning curve in their lives. This is also partially because Rao has a deeper connection with Maharashtra.
Way before he became Prime Minister, Rao contested two general elections from Ramtek in Maharashtra, in 1984 and 1989. It is interesting to recollect how Rao ended up representing Ramtek. Before Ramtek, Rao represented the Hanamkonda constituency in Andhra Pradesh, winning it twice, in 1977 and 1980. However, in the 1984 Lok Sabha polls, held after the assassination of Indira Gandhi, when the Congress swept the polls, the BJP won two seats — one of those seats was Hanamkonda.
This also throws light on a lesser known political history between Pawar and Rao. For the 1991 general elections, Rajiv Gandhi wanted Rao to rerun from Ramtek, but Pawar had other ideas. Pawar misled Rajiv into believing he would ensure Rao's victory from Ramtek — however, when the final decision on ticket distribution was being done at the AICC headquarters in New Delhi, Pawar backed out, giving the impression that it would be an uphill task for Rao to retain his seat if the contest was tough. Rao voluntarily bowed out of the race, and was preparing to return to Andhra Pradesh when Rajiv Gandhi appointed him as the Congress working president.
Indian politics took an unexpected turn in the following weeks with the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. In the Lok Sabha elections, the Congress emerged as the single-largest party, but the post of the Prime Minister was open, and the battle was between Pawar and Rao. Legend has it that Pawar refused to offer Rao a lift on the state aircraft as both leaders were heading to New Delhi to attend Rajiv Gandhi’s funeral. Congress leaders in the know have also mentioned to this author that Pawar in Marathi referred to Rao as a ‘senile old man’. Of course, someone who heard that indiscretion promptly conveyed it to Rao, who, fluent in Marathi, knew exactly what Pawar had meant.
Many Maharashtra Congress leaders believe the fight between Rao and Pawar was all the more bitter for that indiscretion, and Rao saw to it that Pawar’s political relevance was steadily reduced: from a PM candidate he was reduced to just another Cabinet minister, and from there Rao sent Pawar back to Maharashtra as Chief Minister. Finally the Congress lost the state in 1995, and this led to a further downslide of Pawar, and it took him 10 years to claw back up — not before splitting the Congress and later becoming its ally.
Rao’s political acumen and Machiavellianism was second to none, even down to how he politically dealt with the demolition of the Babri masjid and robbed the BJP of some of its momentum thereafter. When criticised for undertaking a siesta while the mosque was under attack, his infamous retort has now become the stuff of legend: not taking a decision is itself a decision.
When he hired a former RBI Governor to resurrect India’s economy, he stood firmly by Manmohan Singh. Rao is said to have told Singh that he is the one (1) which will firmly stand with Singh who can add as many zeroes as he can to the economy. Rao also cautioned Singh saying that if he failed, Rao would not be there and the zeroes would be worthless.
It clear that no one can accuse Rao of shying away from brutal honesty or failing to understand realpolitik.Sujata Anandan is a senior journalist and author. Views are personal.