The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Behind chill, healthy respect

P.V. Narasimha Rao's relations with Sonia Gandhi remained shrouded in mystery. Both reticent persons, they did little to set the record straight.

For Sonia, Rao was always a bit of an unknown quantity ' learned, wise and a respected leader. At the same time, she was never comfortable with him after being repeatedly told about Rao's reported proximity to controversial godman Chandraswami, now under CBI scrutiny in connection with the Rajiv Gandhi assassination conspiracy.

When Sonia took over as Congress chief, political exigencies, too, did not allow her to patronise Rao. Sources close to her said Sonia could not retain Rao in the Congress Working Committee because she did not want constant bickering in the party's apex decision-making body. She, however, found a way to get 'tips' from Rao.

As leader of Opposition (1999-2004), she used Pranab Mukherjee's services to get Rao's inputs on many national and international issues.

Mukherjee cleared the air on several occasions on issues that were touted as Rao's acts of defiance. One notable incident was Rao's submission before the Constitution review panel set up by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee regime under Justice M.N. Venkatachaliah and consisting of known Sonia-baiters like P.A. Sangma. Fearing 'foul play', the Congress had decided to boycott the panel's meetings. Sonia was, therefore, exercised when she learnt that Rao was going to make a submission.

Mukherjee was sent to gauge Rao's mood. The Chanakya told him that he had done nothing wrong. He had gone to clear Indira Gandhi's name in the context of the accession of Sikkim.

Rao had apparently told the panel that it was grossly wrong to view Indira's move as one playing havoc with constitutional provisions while inducting Sikkim as an Indian state. Sonia quickly gave him a clean chit, saying she always held him in high regard as her mother-in-law, too, had a great regard for Rao.

Rao's detractors, including Arjun Singh, Madhavrao Scindia, K. Karunakaran, K. Natwar Singh and Sheila Dikshit, missed no opportunity in dubbing Rao Sonia's rival. The truth was a little different.

While Sonia disapproved of the events leading to the Babri Masjid demolition and tardy progress in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination probe, she had a healthy regard for Rao. This was manifest in the manner in which she overruled a majority of party leaders in according importance to Rao at the party's plenary at Bangalore in March 2001.

On his part, Rao, too, did not indulge in politics and politicking when Sonia took over. In November 2000, Jitendra Prasada challenged her in the Congress organisational polls. His camp spread stories that they had Rao's 'blessings'. Rao was quick to clarify through close confidant Bhuvnesh Chaturvedi that he had little interest in party polls.

When Rao took over as Prime Minister and leader of the Congress, he called on Sonia Gandhi frequently but the gesture was misconstrued as a sign of 'weakness' and his tendency to pay obeisance at 10 Janpath.

In June 1991, the first meeting of the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation (RGF) that took place at 10 Janpath kicked up a row as the Prime Minister was accused of breaking protocol. A closer look reveals a story of Rao's sensitivity.

Apparently, he decided to attend the meeting at Sonia's residence after she expressed her inability to visit 7 Race Course Road as it used to be Rajiv's office. Sensitive to her feelings, Rao called up Sonia, saying he would come over. However, in Congress circles, the gesture was misconstrued.

The Babri demolition led to a deep schism between Rao and Sonia. She issued a statement condemning the act. It was signed as chairperson of the RGF that had Rao as a trustee.

Informed sources recalled that some RGF members had made feeble attempts to dissuade her on the ground that it was an apolitical body. But Sonia vetoed the argument pointing out that the principle of secularism was too dear to Rajiv to be ignored.

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