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Commentary/ Vir Sanghvi

History will be kinder to Narasimha Rao

Now that Narasimha Rao has been consigned to the periphery of Indian politics, this might be an appropriate time to examine his legacy and perhaps, to consider what went wrong.

Three years ago, I noted 'the thing to remember about Narasimha Rao is that he essentially a short-term manipulator who poses as a statesman.' And over the last year, I have been Rao's bitterest critic in the media.

Nevertheless, I believe that history will probably be much kinder than journalism has been. As columnists, we response to events on a day to day or a week to week basis. Historians, on the other hand, have the advantage of perspective.

And seen in perspective, Narasimha Rao was a successful prime minister. It was during his tenure that India succeeded in pulling off an economic turnaround of the kind that is unprecedented anywhere else in the world. All prime ministers made noises about pulling back the licence-permit-quota raj; only Narasimha Rao had the guts to do it.

There were other achievements. Punjab was a mess when he took over, the situation is near normal now. India's foreign policy was shown to be in tatters during the Gulf War. It was only under Rao that India began to carve out a new global role for itself in the post Soviet Union world.

We tend to forget the state of affairs when Rao took office. The Hindu backlash dominated politics and the caste tensions generated by the Mandal controversy threatened to tear India apart. Rao succeeded in cooling tempers though of course, some would argue that this was done at the cost of Muslims sentiments.

All things considered, he was a good prime minister. And that is how history will remember him.

When then, does contemporary journalism regard him differently? Why does nobody have a good word to say about him? Why is a Bhuvanesh Chaturvedi the only friend he has left in Indian politics? Why is there so much middle class delight at the prospect of his going to jail?

The answer, I suspect, has to do with Narasimha Rao's own personality. He got by throughout his political career by remaining on the sidelines, keeping in with his bosses and hoping that on one would pay too much attention to him. The one time he got a top job (chief minister of Andhra Pradesh) it was a disaster and he was driven out of office after a few months.

Consequently, he was temperamentally unsuited to being the Number One man. Singularly bereft of charisma, he neither had mass appeal nor tried to develop any kind of base for himself. The old technique of keeping in with the bosses could no longer guarantee his survival. And, much to his dismay, he was always in the public eye.

He coped with these disadvantages in two different ways. For the first half of his tenure, he did all the right things. Cabinet government was revived, ministers were given autonomy, the Constitution was respected and most decisions were arrived at on the basis of a consensus that included the Opposition.

For some reason, he abandoned all this in the second part of this reign. Perhaps, the fact that he had survived for two years against all the odds made him overconfident. And perhaps he felt that now that his position was secure, he could begin treating his colleagues as Mrs Gandhi (his great mentor) had treated hers.

Almost all the hatred of Narasimha Rao that so pervades Indian politics today stems from his behaviour during the second phase.

Colleagues say that it was the Harshad Mehta episode that was the turning point. Nobody in Indian politics seriously disputes that Rao took the suitcase. But there were two saving graces. One, the money was not a bribe; it went straight to treasurer Sitaram Kesri who used it for a by-election in Punjab. And two, fortunately for Rao, Harshad got the date wrong.

Rao seems to have been perturbed that nobody took his side during this crisis, even those who knew that the money was a party contribution. And he seems to have drawn inspiration from the manner in which the Ajit Singh group was split and the JMM bought over. What could be more ironic than a noconfidence motion over corruption that was defeated by more corruption?

After the, Narasimha Rao took the line that there was no pint in counting on his colleagues. In Indian politics, amorality worked much better than consensus or morality.

The latter Rao was no more than a bargain basement version of Indira Gandhi without the charisma, the mass appeal or the personality. His crooked sons held court at 5 Race Course Road where such PMO flunkies as P V R K Prasad turned up to genuflect. The CBI became an Andhra restaurant where a willing Vijaya Rama Rao served up whatever Narasimha Rao desired.

Congressmen and the media were denied access to Rao. When the great man did deign to grant an audience, he was always distant, preoccupied and in a hurry. A coterie of Congress rejects from various regimes surrounded the leader: B.P Maurya, M S Bitta and Janardhan Poojary.

It is significant that Narasimha Rao's was the first PMO to be widely regarded as riddled with corruption. Even during the worst excesses of the Rajiv Gandhi era, the corruption was said to be located at the prime minister's house (where Satish Sharma and assorted aides sat) and not at the office where nobody questioned the integrity of Gopi Arora, Sarla Grewal, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, or G Parthasarathy.

But in the Rao era, corruption began at the PMO and the FIPB. Only the very naive believe that Sukh Ram could have made this kind of money without the connivance of the PMO. Perhaps Rao was not in on it; but there is no denying that he looked the other way when his civil servants made money.

The corruption and the aloofness were accompanied by growing insincerity. He kept promising Sharad Pawar that he would be his successor while working to undermine him. He told a young minister that he was the future of the Congress while simultaneously instructing Vijaya Rama Rao to embroil him in CBI cases.

By the time hawala came around, the gulf between Rao's perception of himself and the way in which the country saw him was staggering. The prime minister genuinely believed that he would be hailed as a crusader against corruption. The people of India saw him as a crook who was ready to sacrifice everybody else to save his own skin.

It is sad because it could all have been so different. In a political scene that is so dismally bereft of any talent Rao still towers over most of his contemporaries. A man of stature and one of the best prime ministers in recent memory now finds that India has no use for him.

Alas, he has only himself to blame.

Vir Sanghvi

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