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The inscrutable chess player

Pamulaparthy Venkata Narasimha Rao lived in historic times. His career coincided with the Congress' loss of hegemony and the emergence of the chaotic chequerboard we live with today. As the structure crumbled, India's leaders took evasive action. Mrs Gandhi declared emergency; and when it failed, she turned devout. Rajiv Gandhi tried to buy everyone's support and lost it. The BJP turned to theatre over Ayodhya. Vishwanath Pratap Singh tried to create a Dalit vote bank and lost power forever. Chandra Shekhar fiddled while the economy burned.

Through this maelstrom Narasimha Rao sat quietly and survived, until fate chose him to lead the country. He held the fort for five years, but then lost it because his southern bulwark fell to Dravidian forces. Various scandals of his political life continued to haunt him after he fell from power; they were but a symptom of the turbulent times he lived through. His achievement was that he held together his government for its entire term; his failure was that he did not rebuild the power base of the Congress. He was an outstanding Prime Minister, but not a statesman; an outstanding politician, but not a leader.

What I remember most vividly about him from my brief time in the government was his economy with words. Most politicians are verbose; and despite decades of experience they tend all too often to put their foot in the mouth. Narasimha Rao seldom said more than he had to, and often not that much either. His deposition before the Liberhan Commission was a masterpiece of verbal economy. When asked whether the structure that was pulled down in Ayodhya was a temple or a mosque, he said: 'Am I supposed to express opinions' I have come here only to give clarifications.' When asked about his statement, made hours after the demolition, that he wanted to rebuild the structure in the same place, he said: 'What I said was rebuild. I did not specify the place.'

'What was the structure that you wanted to rebuild' 'Whatever structure was there.' We Indians, used to literal expressions, would see evasion in these answers; actually, it was principled, dauntless understatement.

It is remarkable that this man, who made such a fetish of mildness, was so feared; but that was my other impression of him.

In cabinet, ministers watched him to see how he was inclined, and would try to obey his wishes even before he expressed them. They hesitated to get together in case he came to hear about it. He had a private life, but no one gossiped about it. Narasimha Rao had troubles enough, but none of them was within his party. He had an incredible hold on it. So did Indira Gandhi, but whereas she won it with terrible bloodshed, he did it so smoothly that his hand was everywhere and nowhere.

It is my feeling that the way he managed the party had something to do with his exit. It is true that he failed to get a majority in 1996 because he backed the wrong horse in Jayalalithaa. But the basic fact was that he failed to improve the score of the Congress. He failed to inspire Congressmen to take on the opposition and fight a spirited battle. Somehow the troops he had simply did not want him enough to win.

One should not underestimate the difficulty of the task before him. The Congress had gone through too many organisational hurricanes. First Mrs Gandhi threw out the old guard, then Sanjay brought in street fighters, then Rajiv got rid of them and brought in Doonsmen; Narasimha Rao inherited a fractured, centreless party. But he did not inspire it; he did not give it a centre. The squabbling satraps he left behind could not agree on a leader and selected the least impressive man they could find 'Sitaram Kesri ' to lead them. Behind Narasimha Rao's success as Prime Minister lay a failure as an organiser, an architect.

Although he was held in such awe, he did not micromanage his ministers. It is customary to credit him with the liberalisation of 1991. It happened under his aegis, true; but I greatly doubt that he had anything to do with the shape they took. I think Manmohan Singh did pretty much what he wanted to do. Narasimha Rao did not back him out of conviction; he just stood behind him as long as the reforms were needed to pull India out of the abyss. And when Manmohan Singh had rescued India, Narasimha Rao threw him to the jackals within the Congress. Liberalisation destroyed the livelihood of many a middleman, not a few of whom were in the Congress. They were out for Manmohan Singh's blood, and they stopped the reforms as fast as they could. Narasimha Rao did not support them; he just watched the sport. He let Sukh Ram make millions in the telecommunications ministry; and when Sukh Ram had trouble in Parliament on account of his deals, Narasimha Rao let him face the music. Narasimha Rao was only interested in steering the boat through stormy waters; he did not bother with what went on under the deck.

And what went on in his own cabin under the deck' I think plenty did; but there is a thick veil of discretion over it. But from what little I know, Narasimha Rao was a most complex personality, and lived an interesting life. Perhaps his life was more interesting earlier on, when he was external affairs minister and home minister; perhaps Prime Ministers are too cocooned to have a good time ' although the last one may have been an exception. But Narasimha Rao was no run-of-the-mill politician. He had a cultivated mind, and relationships that went far beyond the world of politics. I hope someone will write the biography he deserves; till then, his novel, The Insider 'The truth of contemporary history' as Mulk Raj Anand called it ' is the closest we can get to his life.

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