When Sonia Gandhi lavished praise on P V Narasimha Rao Friday, recounting the late former Prime Minister’s leadership skills and asserting that the party takes pride in his many accomplishments and contributions, it was a significant and refreshing break from the past, personally for her and politically for the party.
So, were the remarks by Gandhi and the Congress party’s decision to let its Telangana unit celebrate Rao’s birth centenary a political posturing? Or is there a realization that it was time to let bygones be bygones. Or is the party apprehending an attempt by political opponents to appropriate Rao and his achievements including the opening up of the economy.
It could be a mix of all these. It is a known fact that Gandhi’s relations with Rao were frosty. And the reason for their ties turning sour was a mix of many— personal, political and perhaps ideological. Rao was the first Prime Minister outside of the Nehru-Gandhi family to last a full-term as PM. And, ironically, he continues to be the only one who does not have a memorial in the national capital.
His body was not even allowed inside the 24, Akbar Road headquarters of the AICC when he died in December 2004. His cortege was parked on the pavement outside the main gate. The Congress had shunned the intellectual giant after he demitted office in 1996 after an eventful tenure, which saw the demolition of the Babri Masjid, unshackling of the Indian economy in the form of liberalization and the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) bribery scandal.
The party’s defeat in the 1996 Lok Sabha election, however, was pinned on him. And he was soon marginalized and forgotten. Rather, the party under the leadership of the Gandhis chose to forget Rao as well as his contributions.
So, what went wrong?
Politics in general and of Delhi, in particular, is full of drama, twists and turns, intrigue, treachery and machinations. There are often wheels within wheels. Some of the reasons cited for Gandhi’s disenchantment with Rao are real, some are hearsay and some are intelligent conjectures. Whatever they may be, the bitterness was real.
Rao was a senior minister in the Rajiv Gandhi government and had no plans to stay in Delhi after the 1991 Lok Sabha elections. He had virtually decided to retire from active politics and had decided to move back to Hyderabad as soon as the elections were over. But the assassination of Rajiv changed the course of his life.
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With the likes of N D Tiwari, Arjun Singh and Sharad Pawar throwing the hat in the ring, the selection of the next Prime Minister was turning out to be a difficult task for the Congress. Sonia had earlier declined the party’s proposal to take over as Congress president after Rajiv’s assassination. She was not interested in the Prime Minister’s post either.
It is said those close to the Gandhi family— the likes of M L Fotedar and R K Dhawan— were against Tiwari, Singh and Pawar. They favoured the “harmless” Rao. Singh too withdrew from the race later and favoured Rao to checkmate Pawar. But Rao was not Sonia’s first choice. She preferred the then vice president Shankar Dayal Sharma. But she did not object to Rao’s choice and endorsed the proposal.
A Congress leader, who was a minister in the Manmohan Singh government, was witness to Rao’s meeting with Gandhi after it was decided that he will be the next Prime Minister. The leader, who happened to be there to meet V George at 10, Janpath, recalls that “when the door was opened for Rao to go in and meet Mrs Gandhi, Rao lay down prostrate on the floor”. It was Rao’s way of telling Sonia that he will remain loyal to her.
But the equations soon changed.
“The first break happened soon..sometime in 1992. S Bangarappa was the Chief Minister of Karnataka. He wanted George, who was the private secretary of Rajiv Gandhi, to be given a Rajya Sabha ticket. Because George was instrumental in making him the Chief Minister. But Rao had other ideas…he wanted the ticket to be given to another leader…He skillfully tossed it into Gandhi’s court…saying if she says I will give to George. Gandhi was in a different state of mind…she never said yes and she never said no and the ticket went to the person who Rao wanted.”
It is said that the arrest of George’s brother-in-law in a TADA case was another pinprick. But the serious issues followed. The demolition of the Babri Masjid became the rallying point for the likes of Arjun Singh and Tiwari to take on Rao openly. It is said that those close to Sonia at that time had tacitly backed Singh and Tiwari. It was seen as backing by 10, Janpath. Singh and Tiwari used to meet Gandhi to complain about the Prime Minister, which, of course, upset Rao.
It is said that Singh and Tiwari had the blessings of 10, Janpath when they led an abortive political coup against Rao.
But things came to a head in 1995. Sonia was upset over the slow progress in the investigation into Rajiv’s assassination case.
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“Gandhi had a meeting with the then Sri Lankan president Chandrika Kumaratunga. They shared a strong emotional bond. Talking about her husband’s assassination and the involvement of some LTTE elements who were now wandering freely around in Sri Lanka, Chandrika had mentioned in passing that India had not even sought their extradition….I think at that point she felt very disturbed,” a senior leader said.
In August of 1995, Gandhi openly accused the Rao government of going slow on the investigation into her husband’s assassination. “She felt he did not want the inquiry to proceed,” a senior leader said. So, Sonia shared an uneasy relationship with Rao even before she entered active politics, the leader added.
The rest is history. Rao was replaced by Sitaram Kesri as the Congress president after the party’s defeat in the Lok Sabha elections. Two years later, Rao was denied a ticket in the 1998 Lok Sabha elections. Kesri declared the party will not give a ticket to Rao because of his failure to protect the Babri Masjid.
And when Sonia took over as the party chief in 1998, she and those close to her ensured that Rao didn’t get a pride of place. It became natural for the party not to include the photograph of Rao at AICC plenary sessions alongside the pictures of other former Congress prime ministers. And the bitterness continued till his death and after.
Vinay Sitapati in his book “Half- Lion: How P.V Narasimha Rao Transformed India” says Rao’s family wanted him to be cremated in Delhi. He quotes Rao’s son Prabhakara as saying that “Soniaji did not want… him to be seen as an all-India leader”.
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