For a country that is constantly debating and repainting its past, it is little wonder that our attention has been drawn to the 99th birth anniversary of former prime minister PV Narasimha Rao, who headed a minority Congress government for five years from 1992, and is now believed to have changed India’s destiny.
First off the block this year was Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao, who announced a massive year-long centenary celebrations to remind the nation of the contributions of the former PM. This was followed by page-one jacket adverts in major newspapers around the country. The celebrations are a dressing up to what the CM has demanded — Bharat Ratna for Narasimha Rao, no less.
Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Jaganmohan Reddy seems to have opted out of this Rao-race, even though Narasimha Rao was former chief minister of the united Andhra Pradesh.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, not to miss any chance to thumb his nose at Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, said on June 27, “Narasimha Rao understood history very well. His rise from a very simple background, his emphasis on education, his tendency to learn, and with all this his leadership ability, everything is memorable.”
In fact, Modi’s attempt to hoist Narasimha Rao back into national memory started last year when he tweeted about Rao during his Japan visit for G20 summit, showing that he had decided to plug the former PM as long as it embarrasses the Congress. In Parliament too, Modi had made similar statements in support of Rao and against the Gandhi dynasty.
The BJP’s interest in bringing back Narasimha Rao to the fore is obviously not borne out by altruistic desire. The idea is, of course, to try to alter the Congress’ historical template a bit, just as he tried to ‘photoshop’ Indian history by installing a huge Sardar Patel statue; again an anti-Gandhi dynasty move.
Chief Minister Chandrashekar Rao, with all his penchant for giant-sized drama, is unlikely to agree to a statue that is not as high as Sardar Patel’s. A Telangana hero and that too a former PM, is no less tall than a Gujarati leader who was, after all, just a home minister.
The Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), whose interests and inspirations are purely sub-national, just as the BJP’s interests are national, have both now found a common cause in Narasimha Rao, who wasn’t even given a decent burial in Delhi and had to be taken to his home state.
Chandrasekhar Rao’s sub-nationalism has paid him huge dividends, most importantly the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh itself and ruling over half of the divided state. So trying to capture Narasimha Rao as his own and to use his name to whip up some more jingoistic or sectarian feelings are part of his repertoire.
It is true that Sonia Gandhi was not prepared to confer the former prime minister with a status equivalent to that of her late husband, Rajiv Gandhi, or even mother-in-law and former PM, Indira Gandhi. She also refused to let him be buried in Delhi and did not allow his body to be placed in the Congress headquarters on 24 Akbar Road even as the funeral cortege waited there on the way to the airport, according to Vinay Sitapati whose recent biography of Rao, Half-Lion, is widely acclaimed. According to him, former prime minister Manmohan Singh was not happy with this incident.
The BJP’s attempt to rejig the past is an ongoing project started long time back before they came to power. In such projects, revival of selective memory, embellishments of popular myths, and re-calibration of evidences are all essential. But in the case of Narasimha Rao, the BJP forgets that he, in a rage, had dismissed five BJP governments after the Babri Masjid demolition.
The BJP, however, wants to substitute this black mark by suggesting that after all as PM, Rao had in fact allowed the demolition of the masjid, and other things he did, including the arrest of BJP leader LK Advani, were all a cover-up to his secret desire to have the masjid demolished as a gift to the Hindus.
So, this renewed attempt to paint Narasimha Rao saffron is also to give him much credit for the Ram temple that is coming up at Ayodhya.
Anyone will point out that Rao’s flaws as prime minister stand out in contrast to his half-baked attempts at liberalisation. He was the home minister when over 3,000 Sikhs were massacred in the national capital and he, like Modi after 2002, had not uttered a single word about what happened, in what was a catastrophic shirking of responsibility.
So the Congress’ strategy to stay away from him is appropriate, especially since the BJP is constantly harping back to the 1984 anti-Sikh riots.
Modi’s calculation will be that if it is possible for him to confer Bharat Ratna on Rao, then the door will open for Modi himself to wear the crown some years down the line. The award will then prove the greatest white-washer in Indian history. But a statue in Delhi looks quite possible, if not to confer delayed greatness to Rao, at least to make a permanent mockery of Sonia Gandhi.
Critics have pointed out that Narasimha Rao was no brave reformer. In fact, he was mortally scared of whatever little he agreed on, pulling back major reforms, including the crucial fertiliser subsidy cut. “He stopped the process of reform short,” says critic Mihir Sharma on Rao developing cold feet after election defeats. Critics like Sharma argue that, in fact, Rao had derailed whatever reform he had slyly introduced and did more damage.
Modi and CM Chandrashekar Rao’s narrative on Narasimha Rao is also echoed by Kapil Komireddi, an Oxford-based author and critic who wrote in thecritic.co.uk, placing Rao on par with Nehru, something which will be music to Modi’s ears: “And yet if Nehru ‘discovered’ India, it can reasonably be said that PV Narasimha Rao reinvented it. Rao — who would have turned 99 today — is now reviled within his own party, neglected in India, and forgotten by the world. He remains the only departed prime minister of India to be denied a memorial in Delhi. But if India survives today, it is in large measure because of Rao.”
The BJP’s selective memory about India’s recent past and the attempt to reposition Rao is completely dubious and only aimed at embarrassing Sonia Gandhi to the extent possible, and not due to any regard for the former PM. Modi is not willing to give the entire credit to the Congress for the economic revival 1992 onwards, for that would again mean bringing Manmohan Singh to the picture.
But yet he wants to use Rao’s name. Now, to repaint history with just animosity towards the Gandhi family as the only brush is not a viable proposition either. But Modi is a player of such tricks.
(The writer is a senior journalist based in New Delhi)
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