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Why the Congress cannot erase Narasimha Rao

By Harsh V Pant
December 30, 2009 17:42 IST
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It's almost as if P V Narasimha Rao never existed, as if the most difficult years in India's recent history were being managed by the invisible hands of Indira and Rajiv Gandhi. The credit for economic reforms all goes to Rajiv Gandhi while the blame for Ayodhya is reserved for Rao. This was Sonia Gandhi's version of India's recent history during the 125th Foundation Day ceremony of the Indian National Congress. She enumerated the achievements of every Congress prime minister since independence but erased Rao and his contributions from her narrative.

Renouncing one of its most successful Prime Ministers at the altar of expediency and defending Atal Bihari Vajpayee's 'secular' credentials is a feat only the Grand Old Party of India is capable of accomplishing. The Liberhan Commission report by exonerating Narasimha Rao and censuring Vajpayee had put the Congress in a quandary. After all the meta-narrative of the post-Rao years has been that the demolition of Babri Masjid on December 6, 1998 was Rao's fault. For this Rao was not merely punished but humiliated. Even in his death he remained a persona non grata with even his body not being allowed to be taken inside the All India Congress Committee building.

The debate in Parliament on the Liberhan report made it amply clear that the focus of Congress' defence will remain on Rao. The home minister declaimed that the Rao government "made a wrong political judgment" and Rao "paid the price for this." The Union Minister for Minority Affairs Salman Khursheed admitted that the Congress has "erred" but underlined that "hamare paanv khisak gaye the till fortunately Sonia Gandhi took over and saved usÂ…" After all, Rahul Gandhi had made it clear long time back that has a member of Nehru-Gandhi family been in power, the demolition would not have taken place.

It is not difficult to decipher why Congress has over the years created this myth that Rao was a closet RSS-wallah. This allowed the Congress to absolve its rank and file of all the blame and make Rao a convenient scapegoat. It is neatly forgotten that it was Rajiv Gandhi's government that opened the locks and performed shilanyas at the disputed site. Clearly as Prime Minister Rao failed in his duty to protect the disputed structure in Ayodhya. But his failure was also the failure of the entire top brass of the Congress who were part of the government and decision-making process. And it's a failure of the age-old Congress policy of using religion for political mobilisation. To blame Rao for Ayodhya fiasco, therefore, is not only dishonest but also disgraceful. More importantly, Rao's failure cannot be an excurse to deprive him of all the credit that is his due as the nation's prime minister at one of the most difficult times in India's contemporary history.

Early 1990s was a time when a succession of weak governments had left India rudderless, economically, politically and strategically. The world was changing rapidly and the Indian economy was collapsing. India was facing a million mutinies and there was no one of national stature to stem the tide. The Mandal-mandir discourse was threatening to unravel India. It was at such a juncture that Rao assumed power. He had scant support from the senior party leadership of his own party, all of whom had their own aspirations to become the prime minister.

Despite the caricature of Rao being indecisive, he was one of the most decisive leaders this nation has seen. On all crucial issues, he took decisions that have continued to shape India's rise over the last two decades. Manmohan Singh is touted as the father of Indian economic reforms but as Singh has himself acknowledged it was Rao was fathered the process. Singh was an economic technocrat with little understanding of the political constraints. It was Rao who shielded Singh from the Left of his own party who had left no stone unturned in opposing the economic liberalisation programme.

Rao deftly navigated the political waters at a time when his own party was out to scuttle his most ambitions undertaking and made economic reforms politically tenable. How ironical then that today the same Congress party functionaries shout from the rooftops trying to take credit for India's economic success without acknowledging the role of Rao who envisioned and executed the process?

The other major challenge that India faced in the early 1990s was on the foreign policy front. The world had suddenly become unipolar with India's main ally, the Soviet Union, virtually disappearing from the world map. Recognising that India would need the support of the West and especially the US if the economic reforms were to succeed, Rao laid the foundations for a revival of US-India ties acknowledging the importance of the US in the global strategic architecture.

But he was clear that India needed other major powers as well and so his attempts to manage ties with China and Russia even at a time when Russia was widely viewed as a power on an irreversible downward spiral. In West Asia, Rao had the courage that no other Indian leader had. He established full diplomatic ties with Israel in 1992 even as he reached out to Iran, paying a landmark visit to Tehran in 1993 becoming the first Indian prime minister to visit Iran since 1979.

Rao was also the initiator of India's 'Look East' Policy. He understood early on that the centre of gravity of global economics was shifting to the East and India's economic future needed to be linked to the booming economies in East Asia. He expanded India's engagements with the ASEAN not only as a matter of India's economic revival but also as a counterweight to the rising Chinese dominance. On the internal security front, the Punjab situation improved markedly under Rao and the Indian security forces got a handle on Kashmir insurgency even as he was instrumental in reviving the state's political process.

For all this, Rao has only received contempt from his party colleagues. Being one of the most successful Indian prime ministers from a non-Nehru-Gandhi dynasty is not something that Congress-wallahs can accept easily. In their deference to the Dynasty, they have vilified Rao, a sagacious and wily leader who led this nation like few others. Hopefully, history will restore him to a place that he truly deserves -- as one of the most remarkable prime ministers of modern India.

Harsh Pant teaches at King's College London and is presently a Visiting Professor at IIM-Bangalore.

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Harsh V Pant