In May 1995, his relationship with Sonia Gandhi in tatters, Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao asked the Intelligence Bureau (IB) a simple question. How many of his cabinet hopefuls were “pro-high command” (pro-Rao), how many were “pro-10 Janpath”?
The IB, tasked with protecting the nation from domestic enemies, replied with a list of names. Written in columns next to the name were the person’s ‘state’, ‘caste’, ‘age’, ‘loyalty’, ‘comments’. For example, next to “M S Aiyar” it was written “Tamil Nadu, Brahmin, 52, pro-10 Janpath, was critical of handling of Ayodhya issue by the PM. Took care of party interests in JPC on bank scam.” Next to “Margaret Alva” it was “Karnataka, Christian, 53, pro-high command, political lightweight, could be dropped if adjusted suitably in organisation otherwise Christians of Karnataka may react adversely”.
The list ends with the names of leaders to be considered for “appointment to organisational posts”. Topping the list was “Sharad Pawar… Maharashtra, Maratha, doubtful, a good organiser and influential leader. Could prove useful”.
This was not the first time Rao had used the IB to counter Sonia’s influence. On December 7, 1992, the day after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, Rao posted an IB official at 10, Janpath, to check which Congressmen were tattling on him. The IB report even mentioned a conversation within the bungalow: “During the course of discussions with Sonia Gandhi, Arjun Singh, Digvijay Singh, A K Jogi, Salamatullah and Ahmed Patel… reportedly expressed their unhappiness with the handling of the situation (Babri demolition) including by the Prime Minister”.
While the PM was using his government to keep tabs on Sonia Gandhi, she was using the Congress party to keep tabs on him.
Sonia had spent the first two years of Rao’s prime ministership grieving for her dead husband. But after 1992, Sonia began to cultivate Congressmen who opposed Rao. Arjun Singh,
N D Tiwari, K Natwar Singh and others routinely met Sonia to complain about the Prime Minister. Though there is no direct evidence, she likely blessed the Congress splinter group led by N D Tiwari. A minister of the time says: “Sonia Gandhi knew even what was discussed in cabinet meetings. Many (cabinet members) would go and tell her.”
These and other revelations, culled from exclusive access to cartons of Rao’s private papers as well as interviews with over a 100 people, form part of the forthcoming book Half-Lion: How P V Narasimha Rao Transformed India. The book will be available from June 27.
Rao was unloved by his people, hated by his party, a minority in Parliament, and beholden to 10, Janpath. He was nonetheless able to re-invent India’s economy, international relations, internal security, welfare schemes, and the nuclear programme. Through 318 pages and over 1,000 footnotes, the book chronicles how Rao’s ability to assess the strengths and weaknesses of his opponents — and play mouse, fox, or lion as need be — was central to his transformation of India.
Rao’s sophistication in dealing with Sonia Gandhi reflected his ability to play both mouse and lion. He never publicly criticised Sonia, not even when she accused him in August 1995 of going slow on the investigation into her husband’s assassination. But he kept tabs on her movements, and never allowed Sonia or those close to her to influence his government’s policies. Though Narasimha Rao, along with Manmohan Singh, ‘packaged’ economic liberalisation as an extension of Rajiv Gandhi’s vision, he never let that affect the substance of policies.
Where Rao failed in his management of Sonia Gandhi was after he resigned as Prime Minister. When Sonia returned to the party in 1998, she (along with advisors such as Arjun Singh) was determined to erase Rao from the Congress pantheon. Rao was blamed for complicity in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, letting Union Carbide’s Warren Anderson escape after the Bhopal gas leak, and, above all, for conspiring to demolish the Babri Masjid.
When Rao died in December 2004, his family wanted the body cremated in Delhi. “This is his karmabhoomi”, Rao’s son Prabhakara told Manmohan Singh. But Sonia’s closest aides ensured that the body was moved to Hyderabad. Prabhakara alleges, “Soniaji did not want… him to be seen as an all-India leader”.
The day after his death, Rao’s funeral procession left his Delhi house at 9, Motilal Nehru Marg for the airport to fly his body to Hyderabad. On the way, they stopped outside the Congress headquarters at 24, Akbar Road. The convention was that senior leaders, especially past presidents, would have their bodies taken inside, so that party workers could pay their respects. But Rao’s body was made to wait outside on the wintry pavement, while the gate remained locked. “Only one person could give that order (to open the gate),” a senior Congressman who was present remembers. “She did not give it.”
The night of Rao’s cremation in Hyderabad, TV channels showed visuals of the pyre. The man who transformed India, a 20th century reformer of the stature of Deng Xiaoping, had been left abandoned, body half-burnt. Stray dogs were pulling at the funeral pyre.
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