From protesting Hyderabad Nizam to Babri demolition: PVNR’s legacy

New Delhi: Polyglot, statesman, and scholar, the inscrutable P V Narasimha Rao was often referred to as the Chanakya of Indian politics, the prime minister known for initiating far-reaching economic reforms and also for his skillful political maneuvering.

Rao, who will be conferred India’s highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna, more than 19 years after his death, was prime minister from 1991-1996. He was the first prime minister from the south, the first Congress leader from outside the Nehru-Gandhi family to complete a full five-year term and the man who steered India through the turbulent early 1990s.

His five-year rule saw the Babri Masjid demolition, the rise of the saffron forces, and also the country being placed firmly on a new economic path, away from the Nehru years of public sector socialism.

In a sign of his erudition and political acumen, he pacified Muslim clerics in chaste Urdu after the 1992 Ayodhya demolition. Later that week, he quoted shlokas from the Bhagwad Gita while addressing IAS probationers at his residence.

In perhaps a rare show of emotion, he said a day before becoming prime minister that he felt “overwhelmed” and “like a colossus” at the same time.

‘First BJP PM’

Rao has interestingly never been out of the political discourse. The hardcore Congress member, whose legacy in the party is a subject of continuing discussion, was referred to by some, including his party colleague Mani Shankar Aiyar, as the country’s ‘first BJP PM’ for his ambivalent ideological stands. And several in the BJP have alleged that Rao was disowned by his party.

Born to an agrarian family in Vangara village of Karimnagar district of undivided Andhra Pradesh on June 28, 1921, he was educated at the Osmania, Bombay and Nagpur Universities from where he took his BSc and LLB degrees.

Protest against Nizam

The political baptism began early — in 1938 during a protest against the Nizam government’s ban on singing “Vande Mataram” in his college.

A staunch and trusted loyalist of the Nehru-Gandhi family before some say friction began, Rao had the rare distinction of holding important non-economic portfolios at the Centre — External Affairs, Defence, and Home — at different times in the 1980s.

In what is the stuff of political folklore, Rao, whose famous pout was a cartoonists’ delight, became prime minister just when he was walking away from the spotlight. He did not contest the 1991 elections, had virtually wound up his establishment in the national capital and was said to have reconciled to political retirement.

But fate willed otherwise.

Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination

Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated on May 21, 1991. Rao became consensus candidate for the Congress president’s post that put him in the prime minister’s seat after the elections.

He headed a minority government for some time and later acquired majority strength in the Lok Sabha under controversial circumstances which his detractors said was acquired through dubious means.

Criminal cases, corruption charges

Rao, or PV as he was often known, had the dubious distinction of being the first prime minister to face criminal charges and accusations.

He was finally cleared in all three cases he faced trial for — the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha MPs’ bribery case, the St Kitts forgery case and the Lakhubhai Pathak cheating case in which controversial godman Chandraswamy was involved.

The relief in the last case the Lakhubhai Pathak case — came just a few months before his death on December 23, 2004, at the age of 83.

Rao also came under attack from his party colleagues and opposition leaders when his government pursued the ‘hawala’ scam in which they were implicated. The scandal, however, finally met a judicial death.

Economic reforms

His economic reforms agenda primarily focused on ‘liberalisation, privatisation, globalisation’, often referred to as LPG.

The Rao-Manmohan Singh duo is credited with pulling back the country from the economic brink it was facing at the height of a severe foreign exchange crisis.

1984 riots, Babri demolition

However, one of the most important events that marked his rule was the demolition of the Babri masjid at Ayodhya in December 1992 and the nationwide communal riots that followed.

He was also Union Home Minister when riots erupted after the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984 and was even then blamed for “criminal inaction”.

Scam 1992

In 1993, a year after the securities scam, Big Bull Harshad Mehta created a sensation when he is alleged to have handed over to Rao a suitcase with Rs 1 crore at his residence. It took a while for Rao to come out of the political crisis that the muck had left behind.

Not many expected him to remain prime minister for long. Some even called him the ‘stop-gap’ premier given his age, ailing health and lack of charisma and grassroots support.

Yet, confounding political pundits, the ‘meek inheritor’ soon emerged a ‘power player’ with several regional parties, including the Telugu Desam, Shiv Sena, and Janata Dal, splitting.

The multiple scams made his government unpopular, leading to the defeat of the Congress in the May 1996 Lok Sabha polls.

After Sonia Gandhi took over the party reins he did not contest Lok Sabha polls.

Writing

Thereafter, Rao was back to what he did best writing. He came out with an over 700-page semi-autobiographical tome “The Insider”, released by his arch-political rival but a close friend and another former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

A Sahitya Ratna in Hindi, Rao was fluent in several languages, including Spanish.

Taking a cue from Rajiv Gandhi, Rao was quick to adapt to technology. He was over 60 years old when he became a computer addict, spending hours on his word processors when most politicians were not computer literate.

The word processors came in handy to draft the New Education Policy when he was asked to head the newly created human resource development ministry in 1986. The Navodaya Vidyalaya scheme was his brainchild.

Mandal Commission report

Later as prime minister, ‘the consensus man’ implemented V P Singh’s pet project, the Mandal Commission report.

Rao’s prime ministership also marked an upswing in Indo-US relations after a summit meeting with then-American President Bill Clinton in Washington in 1994.

A man of many interests, he liked music, cinema, and theatre, while his special interest was in Indian philosophy and culture, writing fiction and political commentary, learning languages, writing poems in Telugu and Hindi, and keeping abreast of literature in general.

(This story is edited by Siasat newsdesk)