Congress’ belated rehab of PVNR is a red herring

It takes a delusional party in decline like the Congress to think that rhapsodizing the achievements of one of the country’s best prime ministers 16 years after his death will undo the humiliation heaped on him by its dynastic rulers for over two decades.

Pamulaparthi Venkata Narasimha Rao (PVNR) died on 21 December 2004 a lonely, broken, and debt-ridden man abandoned by the party even in death. He was the only non-Gandhi, the first from the South, to have completed a full five-year term (1991-96) as PM, and that without burning incense at the altar of the Nehru-Gandhi clan. However, it is the economic reforms set in motion by the astute poker-faced pouter during his tenure on which his legacy will rest. The reforms were executed under extreme compulsion of a burgeoning balance of payments crisis caused by the runaway rise in oil prices during the Gulf war. But the deep-seated changes introduced freed the country from the stranglehold of the pernicious license-quota raj rooted in the Nehruvian era.

Posterity will also remember PVNR, fondly or otherwise, as the PM in whose regime occurred the single most important political development in Bharat’s post-Independence history: razing of the Babri Masjid at Shri Ram’s birthplace, Ayodhya, on 6 December 1992. It prepared the ground for the revival of Hindu nationalism, and the ultimate marginalization of the minority appeasing Congress.

Again, though the credit for conducing the first nuclear tests at Pokhran go to the Atal Bihari Vajpayee regime in 1998, it is under Rao when preparations for the implosions had reached their final stage. The test was shelved on American pressure. PVNR also raised the bar on military spending, crushed terrorism in the Punjab, and gave the army a freer hand in dealing with the Islamist upsurge in J&K.

There are good reasons why the sudden shower of encomiums on July 24 by the party’s queen bee Sonia Gandhi and son Rahul, was scoffed at. Blame it on the hypocrisy of the ruling clan and the mendacity of the cabal around it  which acts only in self-interest, never to course correct. The speeches of the mother-son duo were read out at the virtual event organized by the party’s Telengana unit as part of the year-long birth centenary (July 28) celebrations kicked off at the behest of a political rival, K Chandrasekhar Rao, the state’s chief minister.

PVNR, a son of the soil, was born in a village of Warangal district, now part of Telengana. Hence, the hurry to honor his memory. Failure to undersign the state’s initiative would have pushed the Congress further to the margins in the region’s politics. Added would have been yet another leader to the list of inconvenient icons like Patel and Bose whom the party abandoned (or neglected) only to be adopted by rivals.

Did PVNR need certification from a fading dynasty to confirm his status as the “father of economic reforms” or commendation of his “bold leadership” which brought about the changes? Had the bozos in the Grand Old Party been genuinely contrite, they would have confessed their mistakes, and offered an outright apology. It would have earned them a few slow claps. But such expectations fly in the face of the party’s internal culture which thrives on projecting its rulers as being a peg above the rest.

Future generations will probably look upon PVNR as the only leader who could have saved the Congress from the terminal decline and rot which set in once the Italian widow of Indira Gandhi’s assassinated son assumed command in 1998. Though an admirer of J Nehru, and a compulsive ditherer, his intellectual skills were second to none. He was a Sanskrit scholar with a reasonably good command of 17 languages, including French, German, Spanish, and Arabic, in a party where felicity in English and alignment with Anglo-Saxon culture remains the most dependable passport to success. Rao did not know the ABC of computing till well into his sixties, but went on to master programming languages like Cobol and operating systems like UNIX.

What set him apart from other Congress leaders was that he never allowed his secular instincts to kill the Hindu within. He was a nationalist at heart, albeit not one for frontal action. Which is why he never let the police descend on the kar sevaks who brought the Babri down. The thought of sadhus being mowed down by cops filled him with revulsion. “I’ll never allow sadhus to be fired at, let anyone say what they want,” he told Subramaniam Swamy when advised to move in the army to restore the rule of law.

PVNR was roundly castigated by sworn rivals like Arjun Singh, Sharad Pawar, and N D Tiwari for neither taking strong arm action nor putting UP under President’s rule. Their stinging attacks bolstered the damning view that Rao was the “BJP’s first PM”. The Chanakya, however, had his own masterplan which seems not to have been found much filtration. PVNR’s media advisor and additional secretary in the PMO, PVRK Prasad, recorded in his 2012 memoirs, Wheels Behind the Veil, that the “inaction” of his boss had much to do with his own desire to see the Ram temple built. Only that he wanted it done through an apolitical trust headed by the seer of the Sringeri mutt, Shri Bharati Teertha Swami. The inclusion of other Hindu mutts was also mooted to checkmate the BJP/RSS desire of being regarded the sole arbiters of Hindu interests. Judged by the results of the 1993 assembly elections which brought the BSP-SP to power in Uttar Pradesh, the plan proved a failure. Hope of a Hindu consolidation in favor of a Congress backed solution came unstuck.

PVNR’s friendship with the controversial godman, Chandraswami, his overt interest in getting the Ram temple built, and proximity to the RSS earned him the hostility of Sonia Gandhi. All three were regarded inimical to the interests of Christian missionaries. His view that there was nothing wrong in seeking the support of saints and sages in any endeavor since kings in ancient Bharat did the same was looked askance. Rao’s legal troubles mounted once he demitted office in 1996. He was named an accused in the St. Kitt’s forgery case as well as a bribery case along with Chandraswami. His son was packed off to jail in the Rs 133 crore urea scam.

In retrospect there is little doubt that had the Congress retained Rao in the CWC, and promoted leaders with his mindset, it would have been better positioned to take on the BJP’s nationalist agenda. Allowing Sonia Gandhi and her henchmen to belittle him and his achievements, and foist false cases chipped away at its credibility and durability. This is regardless of the success at the hustings in 2004 and 2009. Public mood was in the throes of change during those years. The nation was awaiting the arrival of a strong leader to further the nationalist agenda. The wait ended with the anointment of Narendra Damodardas Modi as PM in 2014.


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About the Author

Sudhir Kumar Singh
Sudhir Kumar Singh is an independent journalist who has worked in senior editorial positions in the Times Of India, Asian Age, Pioneer, and the Statesman. Also a sometime stage and film actor who has worked with iconic directors like Satyajit Ray and Tapan Sinha. He writes regularly for the HinduPost as consulting editor.