The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Two legacies & a leader
Singh inherits crown, thorn
'Rao was a father figure. I could turn to him at times of difficulty and at times of doubt.... That fatherly advice will not be available now. This is a great personal loss to me'
Manmohan Singh
'His rich contribution both as Prime Minister and Congress president would always be remembered'
Sonia Gandhi

P.V. Narasimha Rao, who died on Thursday afternoon, took India to the market, left behind a festering wound at Ayodhya and gave the nation its current Prime Minister.

On Rao's death at the age of 83, Manmohan Singh said: '(Rao was a) father figure. I could turn to him at times of difficulty and at times of doubt'. That fatherly advice will not be available now. This is a great personal loss to me.'

Thirteen years ago, when Rao chose Singh as his finance minister he would not have known that the economist-technocrat would one day lead the country, but 2004 could mark the start of an equally significant five-year period in India's economic life ' possibly not as eventful ' as 1991.

If Rao's 1991-96 rule gave the Indian middle class the mobile phone ' with and without camera ' that has become one of the most potent symbols of a market economy, Singh's avowed objective is to connect to people who have been left out of the transformation started by the reforms when he was finance minister.

Singh described Rao as a rare intellectual, scholar and statesman who had succeeded to a degree that was not expected at the beginning. The two share qualities as well as circumstances. In 1991, Rao was plucked from obscurity, when he was in semi-retirement, to be foisted on the Prime Minister's chair after Rajiv Gandhi's assassination.

Once in leadership, he flashed a second surprise by picking Singh to spearhead an economic policy departure from the past. In May 2004, Singh ' much more of a political nonentity than Rao ' took possession of the Prime Minister's chair to the amazement of many.

'I did not understand politics. Even now I understand only a little. But whatever (politics) I know, it is because of him,' Singh said in his tribute.

There are many in the Congress who have said in private that had a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family been at the helm in 1991, Singh might not have been put in charge of the finance ministry. That may or may not be true, but in Indira and Rajiv Gandhis' regimes, Singh only had an advisory role.

Rajiv Gandhi had once described the Singh-led Planning Commission as a 'bunch of jokers'. Congress first family loyalists, however, point out how Sonia Gandhi stunned the world by declining to become Prime Minister and naming Singh.

Both started at the head of a minority government, but, unlike Rao, with Sonia leading the Congress, Singh has someone else to manage his politics. Rao handled the running of a minority government well, achieving majority through means fair and, some said, foul. But he did not manage the politics of the Congress well, presiding over the ouster of the party from power in 1996.

Had Rao led the Congress to victory, Atal Bihari Vajpayee would not have become, through subsequent elections, the first non-Congress Prime Minister to complete the full term. Perhaps, there would have been no Sonia either.

The Congress' decline, that gathered momentum under Rao, saw the emergence of Sonia as party president, under whom its fortunes have turned around.

If the Congress has seen something of a resurgence from the low point it had reached under Rao and subsequently under Sitaram Kesri, the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 has left a scar that has not healed in a decade and that has come to haunt each Prime Minister since every now and then. Singh is unlikely to be an exception in that even if politically the issue now seems to have run out of steam, at some time or other, he will have to try his hand at resolving it.

Although the BJP snatched power riding the Ram rath during Rao's rule, Ayodhya gave little peace to Vajpayee. He attempted a solution but did not succeed.

Rao was among the first to greet ' if not his prot'g', then surely his personal choice of 1991 ' Singh when he became Prime Minister on May 18. It is not often that a politician can claim to have produced a leader of the future, even if by accident.

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