Former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, while delivering the 7th R.N. Kao Memorial lecture last week shared a vignette about someone it appears we are condemned to forget, P.V. Narasimha Rao. In that tiny tidbit, Kalam gave us a glimpse of how the former prime minister and once Congress president worked. On the one hand, he was alive to the proprieties of parliamentary traditions and, on the other, the nugget revealed that he was not chasing history. Rao has seldom received credit for any accomplishment and has more often than not been in the public eye for his miscalculations and omissions.
The disclosure about Rao and the bomb is, in any case, not new. The PM who succeeded him, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, as well as K. Subrahmanyam, another person closely associated with the nuclear policy, had previously acknowledged Rao’s key role in operationalising India’s bomb. This, however, is not about the unsung hero or about parliamentary niceties, but about Rao and his party, the Congress.
The man himself is singularly unusual among contemporary PMs. He was the last PM of a single-party cabinet and also the last to head both government and party at the same time. Significantly, he was also probably the last PM who exercised real power, controlled Parliament, set goals, determined policy lines and got decisions executed. As a leader, Rao backed his own political instincts and was willing to take bold decisions, which he thought would benefit the country and his party, even if it made him unpopular.
He was elected leader of the Congress and chosen to head the government not because he held specific views, but probably because he did not seem to have any. For those who elected him, Rao was, in many ways, the quintessential party man. And he remained so to the very end. He is reported to have said a day before he was sworn in as PM, “As an individual, I feel overwhelmed, utterly humble. But as a representative of a great party, I feel like a colossus.” He was clearly proud of his party. In 1996, when he was defeated and faced a revolt within his party, he told veteran journalist Kuldip Nayar, “Those who ask for my resignation do not appreciate my agony on the compulsion to continue. I have no choice. I have to rehabilitate the party, revive its ethos and put it back on the track.” Once again, it was the party.
Sadly for Rao, his affair with the party was one-sided. The party did not reciprocate this goodwill. For the Congress, he was an outsider. He is not recognised, acknowledged and remembered, and is probably spoken of only in whispers. He serves as their punching bag, to be blamed for all the wrongs. All this after he led the party and the government through one of the most turbulent periods in post-Independence India.
Why does the Congress want to bury Rao? As leader of the Congress and as PM, Rao was probably more concerned with achieving goals and showing results than with how those goals were reached. He knew that he had neither the luxury of time nor the support of friends who were willing to go the distance. Rao, therefore, did not tell us about his dreams or of his pet policy aims, but doggedly tried to set right what he thought was wrong. His single-minded pursuit of often unstated ends, without concern for the means employed, was not necessarily new. Indira Gandhi had been ruthless in her pursuit of partisan ends.
Party organisational literature may provide us with some clues as to why the Congress today wants us to believe that there was no Narasimha Rao. There is always a certain tussle between different elements in any party, especially between the party in public office and the party central office. Scholars of the Congress party identify three distinctive relationship patterns. In the first phase, the Nehru era, the party central office and the party in public office were distinct. The two elements respected each other and worked almost in tandem, with the party in public office playing a lead role. This relationship continued till the mid-1960s.
In the second phase, the difference between the elements collapsed. Indira Gandhi, who controlled both the government and the party, reportedly famously quipped, “Where is the party? I am the party.” Not only did she inaugurate the personality cult, but she also promoted her family. With Rajiv Gandhi taking over, the party and the family fused.
The third phase of the Congress party-government relationship carries features from the past. Inaugurated in 2004, the party central office and the party in public office are formally distinct, as in the first phase. However, the roles are reversed, with the government playing a subsidiary role to the central office. But unlike anytime in the past, the party-family link is much stronger.
Rao’s tenure came during phase two. As PM, he formally controlled both the party and government. However, the party-family link continued to exist, albeit informally. He was the first non-family Congress PM to complete a full term. Given his loyalty to the party or his own personal preference, depending on one’s perspective, he probably attempted to chart a new path, breaking those links. The winds of change threatened many who were accustomed to living “from, rather than for, politics”. For them, their position in the party was perhaps more important than the state of the party itself. Before any change could take root, those invested in the links hit back. When the party was defeated, Rao’s position as leader of the party weakened and he was forced to quit.
So, in today’s Congress, Rao is an odd man. He had attempted to steer a new path, which the party refused to take. If the party were to acknowledge him, it would implicitly give him and his actions legitimacy. It pays, therefore, to discredit him or, even better, to forget him.
The writer is with the department of political science, Panjab University, Chandigarh