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Rao's ghost may still haunt Congress

By A K Bhattacharya
December 16, 2009 10:00 IST
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Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram's reply last week to the debate in Parliament on the Liberhan Commission's report would largely be seen as the United Progressive Alliance government's comprehensive indictment of the role of the Bharatiya Janata Party and its leaders in the demolition of the disputed structure in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992.

His spirited reply brought out in no uncertain terms the failure of the BJP leaders and their government in Uttar Pradesh to fulfill the promise they made to the Supreme Court, the PV Narasimha Rao government at the Centre and the National Integration Council to protect the structure in Ayodhya.

Such an assessment, however, fails to capture the larger picture. Indeed, Mr Chidambaram's reply has many significant aspects, which have gone virtually unnoticed in the din and noise over the main findings of the Liberhan Commission that was set up to probe the destruction of the disputed structure in Ayodhya. One such aspect pertains to the role of PV Narasimha Rao, who was the prime minister when the disputed structure was demolished.

In his reply, Mr Chidambaram admitted that the then Central government, led by PV Narasimha Rao, made a wrong political judgment, induced by the BJP's lies. "Looking back, I may say that the government of the day made a wrong political judgment. Mr Narasimha Rao paid the price for this. The Congress party paid the price for this wrong political judgment. But it was induced by the lies and false promises of BJP," he said.

This is important for a variety of reasons. PV Narasimha Rao was a Congress prime minister for a full five-year term. There is no doubt that he deserves unqualified condemnation for his inaction and inability to prevent the demolition. However, the Congress-led UPA government could have easily sidestepped the Narasimha Rao issue and focussed only on the BJP and its role in the demolition. That it chose to admit that a Congress prime minister could not disclaim responsibility for what happened in Ayodhya more than 17 years ago has other implications. In particular, it raises several questions.

One, has the current Congress leadership been so candid about naming Narasimha Rao for his political misjudgment on the Ayodhya issue because he is not part of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty? It is widely known that Narasimha Rao did not endear himself to the Gandhi family either during his five-year tenure as the head of the Congress government or even after that. Yes, Narasimha Rao should take the blame for allowing BJP activists to pull down the structure, but the role of prime ministers preceding him too should come under scrutiny.

For instance, what roles did Rajiv Gandhi, VP Singh and Chandra Shekhar play as prime ministers while the BJP stepped up its Ayodhya campaign during the 1980s and the early 1990s? Or did the current Congress leadership find Narasimha Rao an easy target as it could present him as the man guilty of political misjudgment without any political embarrassment for the Gandhi family?

This question arises also because the Congress leadership displayed no such candour when credit had to be given to the man under whose premiership economic reforms were initiated in 1991 and the Indian economy moved on to a new path of higher growth and development. Even today, the Congress leadership shows extreme reluctance to acknowledge the role PV Narasimha Rao played in appointing Manmohan Singh as his finance minister and giving him the freedom to unveil the economic reforms package to bail the Indian economy out of an unprecedented crisis. The Congress leadership was correct in blaming Narasimha Rao for his political misjudgment on the Ayodhya issue. But it is now time the same leadership also acknowledged Narasimha Rao's role in ushering in economic reforms.

Yet another question this incident will raise is about the role of the prime minister when violent mobs killed thousands of Sikhs a day after Indira Gandhi's assassination on October 31, 1984. Twenty-one years later, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told Parliament that "whatever happened with the Sikhs in 1984 was a big blot on the forehead of the country". He apologised to the Sikhs on behalf of the government and the country. He also dropped a member of his Council of Ministers as his name figured in the report of the Nanavati Commission that probed the violence against Sikhs in 1984.

It is significant that the Congress leadership in 2005 did not name any member of the Central government as responsible for inaction against perpetrators of the violence against Sikhs. If Narasimha Rao could be held guilty of political misjudgment for the Ayodhya incident, somebody in the Rajiv Gandhi government could have been held responsible for not taking steps to prevent the pogrom. Indeed, Rajiv Gandhi as prime minister at that time could have been blamed for the government's failure to prevent the murder of Sikhs during the first few days of November 1984. Or does the Congress leadership follow double standards while fixing responsibilities for government inaction?

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A K Bhattacharya