A Rao deal and a Ratna

Narasimha Rao has much to be credited for

This columnist had warned the Congress way back in 2018 that the BJP would hijack P.V. Narasimha Rao. They have, with a posthumous Bharat Ratna.

No quarrel. Rao deserves the honour, much more than L.K. Advani, Karpoori Thakur or Charan Singh, the other politicians whom Narendra Modi has honoured in a pre-election honour spree.

Many consider Rao next only to the visionary democrat Jawaharlal Nehru, the strategically far-sighted Indira Gandhi, and at par with or a notch above A.B. Vajpayee, among India’s PMs. He came to power heading a minority regime, 'bought' majority, gave us five years of stable rule, and got prosecuted for buying majority. No Congressman went to his aid when he was in the dock.

That’s how politicos are. Congressmen turn spiteful when out of power; BJP men do when in power. Taken together, we are in the worst of times.

P.V. Narasimha Rao | P. Musthafa P.V. Narasimha Rao | P. Musthafa

Rao has much to be credited for. But for his political backing, Manmohan Singh couldn’t have got away with economic reforms. Pilloried in Parliament, Singh put in his papers twice in those five years. Rao tore up those papers and stood by him. Parallelly, he steered India through the tumultuous tides of the post-Cold War world, and pushed it towards economic growth and strategic might.

Rao hasn’t got due credit for his Punjab miracle, the only instance in modern world history where a heartland separatist movement was defused with no damage done to the state or statute. He pulled off an election without going to Punjab even for a photo-op. His first visit to Punjab was more than a year later—for a hele-survey of floods.

Enemy's enemy is friend; enemy's friend is enemy. Rao reversed the dictum. When the Army didn’t have enough men for militant-hunt in Kashmir, Rao 'truced' with Pakistan’s friend China, relieved more than one lakh troops from the China border and sent them to shoot the Pak-backed militants. That was Chanakya neeti upside down, or statecraft with a touch of Palmerston. The wily viscount had said, a country has “no eternal allies” nor “perpetual enemies," but only permanent interests.

In the Congress eyes, Rao committed a sin of omission—he did nothing when kar sevaks tore down the Babri mosque. But no Congressman would crucify Rajiv for his sin of commission—allowing shilanyas at Ayodhya.

It was only expected that the BJP would seek to hijack Rao. Facing a shortage of freedom fighters, the Indian right has been on the lookout for national icons. They had got K.M. Munshi and Madan Mohan Malaviya alive; one had joined the Jana Sangh, the other founded the Hindu Mahasabha.

Seeking more, they have been eyeing anyone who had walked on the 'right' side of the national movement before independence, or of the nation-building movement after independence, as intellectually theirs to appropriate. Making much of Sardar Patel’s minor tiffs and Netaji Bose’s major tiffs with Nehru, they sought to appropriate both. It’s another matter that Patel had conceded ‘Jawahar’ was better suited to be PM than was himself. A bid was made to take Ambedkar, but the doughty leaders of the dalit movement are just not letting his legacy go.

The Congress did wake up, but too late. They put up Rao’s pictures on posters, perhaps as an afterthought, on the second day of their Udaipur conclave in 2022. Since then Rao has been appearing now and then in the Congress pantheon, but now Modi has moved swiftly, taking the wind out of the Congress’s drifting sails.

Who next? Rajaji, G.B. Pant, Lal Bahadur Shastri are all candidates with rightist credentials, but protected with Congress-bestowed Bharat Ratnas.