Narasimha Rao decided he will be No. 1… Manmohan Singh tried to be so, Congress didn’t let him, says Sanjaya Baru

Former media adviser to then PM Manmohan Singh speaks to The Indian Express about his new book on the importance of former PM Narasimha Rao.

Written by Sheela Bhatt | Updated: October 19, 2016 7:12 pm
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Is your new book 1991: How Narasimha Rao Made History about Telugu pride?

Not at all. Frankly, it is not about Telugu pride. It is about a PM who has simply not got what he deserved. Look at how Narasimha Rao has been completely forgotten… Everybody thinks that liberalisation of the economy was started by Manmohan Singh — of course it is true, he was the finance minister — but people forget who the PM was. And so I thought the time has come to remind this generation that Rao was a great PM. Of course he was the Telugu bidda but that doesn’t reduce his importance of being Narasimha Rao.

WATCH VIDEO: 1991: How P V Narasimha Rao Made History By Sanjaya Baru: Key Takeaways

It seems you have lately taken a political stand against dynastic politics in the Congress. Is your new book part of that stand?

I disagree, partially. See, there is politics in everything, so particularly when you write a book about a PM there is politics in it… You read [Rao’s] book The Insider, he talks of how the Congress has become a family proprietorship. I have only developed that idea, it is not an original idea of mine. And certainly Rao’s political fate is being completely wiped out from contemporary political history. It is because he stood up to that family…

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You were close to Manmohan Singh, and became his media adviser. But why put Rao above Singh in the context of 1991?

I have the highest regard for Manmohan Singh. But Rao was the PM and as the PM he is above the finance minister… What I have said in my book is what Dr Singh himself accepts. He has never denied that it was under the leadership of Rao that he was able to do what he has done. It is the Congress that has deliberately given credit only to Singh and refused to give credit to Rao… I am writing to make the point that hello, there was somebody called the PM of India… I give him [Singh] full credit as the number two, which is what he was in 1991.

What went wrong between Sonia Gandhi and Rao?

I think what went wrong was very simple. Rao viewed Sonia as the widow of a former PM but the people around her viewed Sonia as the inheritor of the Nehru-Gandhi legacy. This transformation of the Indian National Congress into Indira Congress, and then into Rajiv Congress, and then into Sonia Congress, is what created this coterie that thought that like many regional parties which are family-run parties… Rao belonged to a generation that believed INC should continue as a national party…

What lessons could Narendra Modi learn from Rao’s ideas?

I think the most important lesson Modi should learn or could have learnt from Rao, which in my view he did not, was to recognise the importance of time. Rao did most of his policy initiatives within the first year. I think Mr Modi wasted his first year and now he is trying to cover the ground he lost… Rao was a man who thought he was going to die, he was a heart patient. He was going to take sanyaas, he was going to leave Delhi and go to some temple in the south. Suddenly he becomes PM, he does not know how long his government will last, his was a minority government, and he did not know how long he would live. So every day he made use of.

How were relations between Rao and Manmohan Singh?

It was like a teacher and a student. Because Singh said when Rao died that whatever I have learnt in Indian politics is from Rao. Rao himself viewed Singh as a great colleague. It is true that Singh was not his first choice — his first choice was I G Patel — but once he chose Singh, he stuck with him. Even though Singh offered to resign on three occasions, Rao never accepted his resignation. On the other hand, when P Chidambaram and Madhavrao Scindia resigned he accepted it immediately. He was making a very clear point that Chindamabram and Scindia were seen by him as people close to Sonia, whereas Dr Singh was seen as an independent person.

So is it not an irony that Sonia chose a person who was closer to Rao than any other Congressman?

Absolutely. And I wrote in an article in May 1999 saying she has no other choice. The column argued why the only person she can trust as PM was Singh.

That reflects on Dr Singh’s calibre… 

He was the best candidate. In 2004 there was nobody better than him to become the PM of India.

So, how do you look at the careers of the two PMs you have watched from so close?

I think Rao was a lifelong number two but when he became the PM, he decided he will be number one and behave like number one. Dr Singh was also lifelong number two. When he became the PM he tried to be like number one but the Congress did not allow that. They wanted Sonia to be number one and my earlier book, The Accidental PM, was about how that arrangement worked in UPA-I but did not work in UPA-II.