Narasimha Rao had the most muscular policy on internal security, especially Kashmir | Robert Nickelsberg/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)
Narasimha Rao had the most muscular policy on internal security, especially Kashmir | Robert Nickelsberg/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
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Since nobody seems to remember this is P.V. Narasimha Rao’s birth anniversary, a short tribute and a couple of personal stories.

The word “muscular” has become very trendy lately. Since it is used mostly to talk about the central government’s approach to Kashmir, let’s raise a question: Which Indian leader, do you think, has had the most muscular policy in Kashmir?

Think hard. Today, you can’t even think of Nehru. Indira? Tough in Pakistan, Punjab for sure. But there wasn’t much trouble in Kashmir then. The same for Rajiv. Narendra Modi now? Think again.

Even today when we want to say things have deteriorated in Kashmir we ask if it is back to the dark days of the early 1990s. That is when P.V. Narasimha Rao, whose birth anniversary falls today, took over after the state had been taken to its ruin by V.P. Singh’s government, supported by the BJP from outside. It wasn’t the only internal challenge he inherited. Punjab was going through it’s worth terror phase as well.

By the time he was done five years later, both were back in control. Kashmir was calmer, and Punjab hasn’t festered since. In my book, therefore, Rao had the most muscular policy on internal security, especially Kashmir. But he never talked or boasted about it. If you had asked him why, he would probably have said, arrey bhai, does muscular mean brainless? I pressed him once (when he was in office) greatly to say something on how he would counter Pakistani interference in Kashmir. All he would say is: They will do something, we will do something. What we get ultimately will be the net of that. Of course he would say it drawing an imaginary line as if solving an arithmetic puzzle. One thing you’d never get from Rao is a boast, or even an exaggerated promise.

P.V. Narasimha Rao was the first serving prime minister I got to meet one-on-one and I had done very little to deserve that honour. In the course of an interview in Kabul in the winter of 1991, Najibullah, the Afghan dictator, tapped me on the elbow and asked, through an interpreter, “I am told you are an important person. Can you tell your prime minister Mr Rao one important thing on my behalf?”

I was a mere reporter, I said, I am not so important. But Najib said mere reporters were not “sent” to the Afghan war five times in a year and that he had done his homework. Then he told me what he wanted conveyed to Rao that he wouldn’t trust his own ambassador with. Salt that away for your memoirs and grandchildren, I said to myself. But, on my return, I did happen to mention this as a joke at a party to M.J. Akbar, who was then close to Rao. He said I must tell the prime minister. I laughed.

The next morning there was a call from the prime minister’s office and an audience was offered.

Rao sat there, slurping at his porridge uninterestedly as grandfathers tend to do, bit spraying on the napkin around his neck. I told him the story, the message, laced with many apologies. That I did not know what business I had to be there, that I had no idea why Najib had chosen me for this and not our or his ambassador, or that I was possibly only being made a fool of. As a reporter, I said, I felt so awkward to be drawn into all this and would he please keep what I said always to himself?

He smiled, patted his belly thrice, crossed his arms, and said, what goes in there stays there forever.

Rao was not one to take it all so lightly. He took lots of notes with a lead pencil and then gave me a long discourse on the Afghan problem, a masterly analysis on complexities that emerge when tribalism and ethnicity clash with religion in the absence of a well-defined nationalism. What the message was, let me still save up for the future. But no other Indian prime minister, except Nehru, could have packed so much insight and intellect, in a 30-minute discourse on so complex a problem.

It’s bit sad to write this today, his birth anniversary, when the entire country has forgotten him. He is our most vilified and deliberately misunderstood prime minister. I had written something similar also on the day he was convicted in the trial court (later acquitted). Everybody was cursing him then, and his party was using the lofty old line of “let the law take its course”. It had never used that line when it came to one they truly regarded as their own. Not when Mrs Gandhi (senior) was disqualified for electoral malpractices by the Allahabad High Court (her party had then called it a minor traffic offence). Not when Sanjay Gandhi was produced in court to face so many cases of Emergency excesses and corruption.

Rao was not the most accessible of prime ministers. He was also certainly the second most uncharismatic after H.D. Deve Gowda. But he was always on the job. Much has been written about his shepherding of a very, very vulnerable India through the collapse of the Cold War, the opening up of the economy and the foreign policy, his masterful marginalisation of Benazir Bhutto in her most virulent phase when Kashmir and Punjab were both on fire and a new one was being lit out of Ayodhya. This was when the Americans were constantly breathing down India’s throat, we needed IMF bailouts and the entire international human rights community had a single point focus: Kashmir. Who else could have decided to upgrade relations with Israel in that critical phase, but waited patiently for Arafat to come visit New Delhi to make a formal announcement and get him to endorse it at a press conference?

Rao’s style was so hopelessly understated as to amount to self-denial, which is no virtue for a politician. But his method was thorough and effective. Cynicism may have been his personal style statement but what else could you have expected of somebody whose own party was unwilling to give him credit for what he was doing right? The biggest problem was, if he didn’t want to, he told you nothing, as if any extra word he spoke would give a national secret away.

It was during the peak of the Kargil war that I dropped by one afternoon for a few words of wisdom from the old man. How would this Old Fox have handled a crisis like this? Would he have buckled under? Would he have escalated the war? Yet another lesson in Narasimha Rao’s art of crisis management. This is when he opened up a bit more on what he did the day Babri Masjid fell, (I wrote about this in detail in another piece, on the 25th anniversary of the demolition of the Babri Masjid: Narasimha Rao felt betrayed over Babri, he avenged it by trapping Advani in hawala scandal), when the news of the burning of Charar-e-Sharif came, on how he swung the “settlement” of the siege of Hazratbal and on the way the rules of engagement were evolved in Punjab. If among the few sympathisers in the courtroom on the day of his sentencing you saw K.P.S. Gill, you can draw your own conclusions. Fortunately, not all men are so devoid of a sense of honour as the usual Congressman.

This is no political obituary of Narasimha Rao. You will learn a lot more on him from Vinay Sitapati’s biography: Half Lion (Penguin Books, 2016). This is merely to underline this fascinating man who achieved so much in five impossible years and died so friendless. And this is nothing to do with any moral outrage over his “corrupt ways”.

Rao was punished by the middle class for keeping the BJP out of power for a full five years. Why else would it hate someone who gave them so much, through economic reform? Similarly, he was punished by the Congress party for keeping the Gandhi family out of power. For daring to believe that he could lead the party, and keep it in power, whatever the cost, in the absence of an active Nehru or Gandhi. It is for this sin that the very party that should have been so grateful to him wanted the law to take its own course and would have celebrated his conviction, and later didn’t allow his body to be brought into its headquarters.

Like many who saw that period closely, I believe fate made the Congress pay a price for being disrespectful to his memory. Now they are at least tweeting a tribute or two to him on his anniversaries. But it is still half-hearted. It’s a matter of time before, like Sardar Patel, Rao is also fully appropriated by the BJP.

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17 Comments Share Your Views


  1. P.V.Narashima Rao was the greatest Prime Minister, India has ever produced.He had saved India from the brink of breaking when country was virtually unmanageable due to situation in Punjab and Kashmir, Babri mosque issue and crumbling economy. But he very bravely and silently too took India out of these crises and problems. What a great statesman he was who could read, write and speak 13 different languages.He was not only under rated Prime Minister but also ditched shamelessly by his own party due to narrow mindedness of a ” family”. We should salute this one of greatest sons of India , the second iron man after Sardar Patel.

  2. He was one of the best PMs India had. He and not MMS opened the Indian economy. MMS was only the technical hand.

  3. At last an article on Shri.P.V.Narashima Rao. A true son of soil who guided India through its most turbulent economic crisis period. In the end see how we rewarded him Friendless.
    Shri.P.V.Narashima Rao handled three crisis at a time,the economic crisis, the Punjab militancy and the Kashmir problem.
    A man really deserving the Bharat ratna.

  4. Rao deserves every word in this article. In the politics of Gandhis, by now all but a spent force post Rajiv, Rao might have lost the rat race, but his towering personality as a world leader and statesman are something for posterity to judge, albeit with pride. How I wish JNU creates a chair in his honour in the Department of International Relation. At least that would mean the brilliant innovation he devised in the statecraft is preserved, studied and further worked upon by tomorrow’s statesmen.

  5. Mr. Rao was a statesman par excellence, having been the External Affairs Minister for so long. He certainly deserved much better treatment. He was a class act. A hard-nosed, yet soft, unassuming man who guided the country through turbulence. A truly great leader.

  6. Prof PK Sharma, Freelance Journalist,Barnala (Punjab)

    A very fine and wonderful gesture on the part of The Print indeed !

    What a visionary and scholarly statesman in Mr.P.V. Narasimha
    Rao India had to revive the nation of a critical economic crisis !

    It is the dire need of the hour that all political parties and leaders
    must rise above petty and narrow party as well as self-centred
    tendencies to take a leaf from the enlightening books of such great
    and distinguished personalities like Mr. Rao.

    I not only feel sorry for the Congress Party but for the ruling party
    of the day and other parties too.Why should these feel shy to emulate
    the finest qualities of head and heart alongwith many virtues symbolised
    by Mr. Rao ? What is the harm in acknowledging something worthwhile
    and praiseworthy done for the nation by Narasimha Rao like PMs ?

    It is not prudent to coin expressions like “Congress Mukt Bharat.” How can
    India be imagined of a Congress Free Nation by anyone when Congress Party
    shaped the destiny of the country offering a galaxy of Prime Ministers-Pandit
    Jawahar Lal Nehru, Mr Lal Bahadur Shastri, Mrs.Indira Gandhi,Mr. Rajiv
    Gandhi and Mr. P.V. Narasimha Rao ? Each one of them rendered a yeoman’s
    service in bettering the lot of the nation during their stints as Prime Ministers in
    their own capabilities, prudence and style ! Then Congress’ s invaluable contribution
    in the freedom of India who can afford to forget ?

    There are always good and bad phases in the annals of any organisation or nation. It is
    a foolish thought that any individual, organisation or nation can be pushed into oblivion
    by overlooking and downplaying finest traits- achievements of anyone of these during a
    specific span of time !

    Those at the helm of affairs must now set a new precedent that at least all former Prime
    Ministers living and non-living irrespective of their party tags should be recognised and
    remembered on their days ! It must become a ritual in the nation because they very much
    deserve it !
    Nice on your part too Mr.Gupta for this exemplary piece of writing to remember a
    philosopher Prime Minister on his birthday anniversary !

    Prof PK Sharma, Freelance Journalist
    Pom Anm Nest, Barnala (Punjab)

    • Prof Sharma: Churchill saved Britain from certain defeat in 1940 but the British threw him out of power after the war for his failings not for his successes. The Congress has had almost nothing but failures since independence. They do need to be remembered for their service to India and its independence movement but not for the disasters the Nehru-Gandhi family wrought in post independent India

      • Prof PK Sharma, Freelance Journalist, Barnala(Punjab)
        Vijay D Sir, I respect your sentiments but with a reasonable rider that it is unfair to see post Independence
        India totally disastrous and bleak ! Objectively speaking, I am not for parties or personalities but for seeing
        India a developed nation- a force to reckon with in the world ! Perhaps post independence,the nation did not progress at the fastest pace but fact remains that there has been considerable advancement and progress alongwith disasters and setbacks too in India’s lap !

        Prof PK Sharma

  7. What comes through this fine, nostalgic column is an elder statesman’s realisation that when a large nation, beset with so many problems, offers its top job to someone, it expects him to place its core interests above his own, to be willing to do what is right by its people, even if the contribution remains hidden from view, confers no political benefit upon him, cannot even be acknowledged to become part of his legacy. How does it matter if there is no Shantivan or Rajghat for PM PVNR in Delhi. Like Comrade Deng – though to a smaller degree, for the economic reforms he initiated were not enlarged and systematically built upon by successor governments, including one headed for a decade by his FM – he changed the line fate had etched upon the palms of his countrymen.


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