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.

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    Chander Pal
    Oct 19, 2016 at 5:33 am
    What ever the compulsions of this 'whodunit', the dynasty showers a single term P M with legacy that scores of schemes, awards or airports are named after Rajiv hi but no one can dare to name any insution in the name of Rao or M M Singh.
    Reply
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      Fleapsingh
      Oct 19, 2016 at 9:33 am
      Antonio Maino could have been great Italian pm of India . Unfortunately she could not. But not to worry Lalloo, Khujliwal Mulayamji Niteshji Mamataji Mayawatiji yechuryji will come together and make raul Vinci the great as the first Italian pm of India.
      Reply
      1. M
        module
        Oct 19, 2016 at 6:42 am
        Chidamberam/Digvijay likes many leaders within congress, who spoiled entire congress party. After Indira, Sanjay and Rajiv hi's death, congress was already finished. There after these inside poisonous virus spread all over congress including sonia and rahul hi. these two was zero figure, when both came into politics. So some corrupt leaders easily handled both and now congress sunk.
        Reply
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          Anand Prakash
          Oct 19, 2016 at 10:26 am
          Sanjay Baru is a clic example of a bootlicker who tries to bad mouth the Congress and the hi family because he was not given an extension of service. I fail to understand if there were so many ills with the Congress why did he be a part of the government rather than resign and make his displeasure public at that time. Baru is an example of a bureacrat who tries to milk the public with a book to make up for the notional loss of income with an extension of service.
          Reply
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            aravind
            Oct 19, 2016 at 7:26 am
            The Congress party seems to have a tradition of discrediting hardworking and sincere leaders, starting with Krishna Menon. The list goes on. Narasimha Rao was a PM who knew the pulse of true Indians. As to what happened to his pyre - the insult goes to Congress party for not understanding and appreciating but then the party has to live up to its tradition! Thanks to Sanjaya Baru for giving a chance to remember Rao.
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              chattoo
              Oct 19, 2016 at 3:33 am
              One more attempt !!!!! Good luck to Sanjay.....
              Reply
              1. G
                Geeta
                Oct 19, 2016 at 3:50 am
                When Babri demolition was happening, Rao was chanting Ram-Ram. No 1 PM could not do anything.lt;br/gt;It was Dr. Singh and Mr. Chidamberam who bailed India out of financial mess. Mr. Barua did not listen to his conscientious mind when Congress was in power. Had Sonia hi wanted, she could have become PM. After all Congress party was ready for it. She listened to the public sentiment and gave PM post to most able man. Dr. Singh bought India to world economy power club. Wish he also how to throw jumalas.lt;br/gt;Since BJP came to power w India seems to be vertically divided.People are afraid of speaking their mind- Amir, Khan,mn Khan, Karan Johar, Shahrook Khan, Om Puri other intellectuas, almost all been threatened to send to Pak
                Reply
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                  G k
                  Oct 19, 2016 at 3:29 am
                  From 1947 to 1989 Congress was in power and they ruined the economy more or when Rajiv hi was in power. India had to pledge its gold to avoid default. Now the same Congress government forced to take economic reform because it had no other option, Manmohan Singh is given credit for. This is dynastic and slave mentality. Absolute nonsense.
                  Reply
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