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.
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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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