|Then Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao releasing a commemorative coin on late Rajiv Gandhi on May 21, 1992.|
It has been 10 years after P V Narasimha Rao, the country’s Prime Minister from 1991 to 1996, died. India’s history would have been different had Rao led the Congress to re-election in the 1996 general elections. Had it won, the Congress might have had the real chance to break loose of the Nehru-Gandhi family’s vice-like grip. However, what followed a few years after the 1996 elections was political theatre. Within months, Rao had to quit as president of party, but his downfall was not complete until the representative of the first family, Sonia Gandhi, was anointed party chief in 1998. With Gandhi at the helm, Rao was treated like an anathema by the party. No newspaper advertisement commemorates his death anniversary and he remains the only departed prime minister to be denied a memorial in Delhi.
If Rao was the architect of India’s economic reforms process of 1991 while leading a minority government, the Finance Minister in his government, Manmohan Singh, was the main organiser. Yet, the Congress party has never acknowledged Rao’s transformational role in the country’s history, and his political grit to undertake the reform process when the chips were down. Rather, it insists on the fiction that the era of economic liberalisation started with Rajiv Gandhi.
Doubtless, Rajiv Gandhi mouthed platitudes about launching India into the 21st century, but his 1984-89 government should be best remembered as a text-book case of how to squander a clear mandate – rather, a brute majority – in Parliament and do nothing to pull the country’s economy out of the stultifying licence-permit-quota raj rut. A quarter century later, the Rajiv Gandhi government is etched in the minds of objective observers for wrong reasons: its unwillingness to command authority when it mattered (the anti-Sikh riots in 1984), political naivety (the Shah Bano case), the disastrous military involvement in Sri Lanka, and the Bofors payoffs scandal.
Rao was no Chanakya of Indian politics. He might have thought his gamble of not doing enough to prevent the razing of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992 was a masterstroke to neutralise the BJP’s Mandir card, but it backfired. In the evening of December 6, 1992, the day the Masjid was demolished, Rao addressed the nation, crying “national shame”, but he could fool no one. He is believed to have overblown the Hawala scandal to taint key BJP leaders, but that did not give him any edge in the 1996 elections. In popular imagination the fact that got planted firmly was Harshad Mehta’s claim (made in 1995) that he had bribed Rao with suitcases full of money in 1993 to save the disgraced stock market trader’s skin in the securities scandal of 1992. Towards the end of his government, one of his own son’s financial dealings did much damage to Rao’s credibility.
Losing the 1996 elections, in spite of no strong single opposition party to challenge him, did him in, and that was his ultimate failure. Besides scams, Rao had to pay the price at the hustings for the economic reforms and the attendant cutbacks in social spending and subsidies. Only the Gandhis could afford the luxury of leading the party to a general election rout and still being hero-worshipped, and Rao learnt this elementary lesson within months.
After that, the Congress had refused to give Rao his due in India’s economic liberalisation story. It’s a known fact that Sonia Gandhi did not like Prime Minister Rao, badgered him oftentimes (K Natwar Singh’s memoirs said Rao felt “insulted” by Gandhi) and gave silent backing to party bigwigs like Arjun Singh and Sharad Pawar to openly turn against him. The extent of party’s implicit sanctioning of the Rao’s denigration can be gauged by the fact that, the first family’s staunch loyalist Arjun Singh, in his autobiography, whitewashed Rajiv Gandhi’s role in Union Carbide chief Warren Anderson’s infamous escape from India after the Bhopal gas tragedy in 1984 December; and implicated Rao in it. No one was there to defend Rao even on grotesque allegations.
Even as Rao lost out to the party, people with a clear sense of history continue to praise him. At the launch of Sameer Kochhar’s book ModiNomics in February this year, Arun Jaitley, who became Finance Minister months later, had made a remark that was quite clearly non-partisan. “When objective history is written, the 1970s and 1980s would be probably rated as a wasted opportunity and a good turning point came when Rao was the Prime Minister,” Jaitley said.
According to a survey by the Centre of the Study for Developing Studies, only 12 per cent of the Indian voters had heard of the term ‘economic reforms’ in 1996. Today, that has changed, and the country has changed for good. India should remember Rao for summoning the political will to take the hardest first step in reforming the country’s sick economy after all the wasted decades when industries had to negotiate hundreds of mandatory government clearances to import even a needle in the name of import substitution and citizens had to wait for years to get a telephone connection in the name of socialism.
(Rajiv Jayaram can be reached at email@example.com)
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