| No middlemen please
The very first words that were spoken by Manmohan Singh when he arrived at his South Block office, after he was sworn in as prime minister and was received by officials, was a question: 'Where is Brajeshji' According to at least half-a-dozen civil servants in the prime minister's office that this columnist spoke to, Singh was told that Brajesh Mishra, the national security adviser, had cleared his office and left, along with two other political appointees in Atal Bihari Vajpayee's PMO.
'Everyone knows that Brajeshji is a great patriot', Singh said in response. Soon afterwards, officials contacted Mishra and the next day he drove to Singh's residence to give him a detailed briefing. Contrary to the slander and calumny that have circulated in New Delhi about strained relations between Singh and Mishra, the latter has since briefed the UPA's prime minister several times on sensitive matters of state.
In the days after P.V. Narasimha Rao's death, it is important for this columnist ' whose early years in journalism were in the shadow of the Emergency ' to record that none of this would have been possible without Rao.
As the first prime minister to acquire legitimacy from outside the Nehru-Gandhi family, Rao completed the transformation of India into a pluralist democracy in the true sense of the word. Morarji Desai was considered an aberration both in politics and in his personal life. V.P. Singh was considered an interloper, who had exploited everything ' including the tragic murder of his brother by dacoits ' in his calculated and ambitious pursuit of prime ministership. In any case, neither lasted long enough in office to see the country through the process of ceasing to be a one-party state in practice ' and in spirit.
I was a fly on the wall in the chief minister's ground-floor suite in New Delhi's Kerala House during the momentous early years of Rao's prime ministership. The chief minister, K. Karunakaran, was one of two Congress leaders who interviewed newly-elected Congress members of the Lok Sabha in 1991 to determine the choice of the new prime minister after Rajiv Gandhi's assassination. The other was West Bengal's Siddhartha Shankar Ray.
In the Congress working committee of the time, Karunakaran had huge moral authority: he was the only CWC member to have taken part in the Quit India movement. He was one of the few senior party leaders who never abandoned Indira Gandhi. By then, for almost a quarter century, he had alternately been chief minister or leader of the opposition in his home state. Karunakaran allowed journalists he trusted to be present at his meetings, to listen to his telephone conversations ' as long as they used the insights and information they gathered with discretion. I can assert from all that I have seen and heard during those years that Rao never did anything to undercut or neutralize Sonia Gandhi, although stories to the contrary are legion.
What Rao did ' and very decisively at that ' was not to allow the culture of middlemen, familiar in the Congress party, to grow in his relations with Sonia. On one occasion, a CWC meeting took place on the day Rao was leaving on an official visit to Mauritius. On the agenda was the selection of party candidates to the Rajya Sabha from Karnataka. Rao was told that 'Madam would like' a certain person to be one of the candidates.
Rao said he was not due to leave for the airport for another four hours. If 'madam' wanted someone to be nominated, he told the Congressman who carried the message, 'please request her to speak to me'. He even held up the release of the list of Rajya Sabha candidates until the special aircraft had taken off for Port Louis. The call from 10 Janpath never came. I know of at least two other occasions when Sonia's 'wishes' were conveyed to Rao. On both occasions, Rao had the same message for the middlemen.
Only Sonia can tell whether these were actually her wishes ' and if they were, why she did not pick up the phone and convey those to Rao. Or whether some Congressmen were using a trick to get things done by misusing her name. The practice of telling Rao 'Madam would like' eventually stopped, but those who had attempted it never forgave Rao and did everything to poison relations between 10 Janpath and 7 Race Course Road.
Tributes to Rao since his death have dwelt at length on his foreign-policy successes and his role in economic reforms. But a turning point in his prime ministership came seven months after he assumed office. Punjab had felled Indira Gandhi and failed Rajiv Gandhi, but Rao pulled off elections in the state in February 1992. I was curious why Rao was not claiming credit for what can only be described under the circumstances that prevailed in Punjab in 1992 as a political feat. He had no doubt that the moment he claimed victory over terrorism, there would be a few bomb blasts in Punjab and people would be killed, just to show that the idea of Khalistan was not dead. 'It is the result that matters', he said. 'Credit is not important.'
Rao often pushed through controversial decisions by relying on the ignorance of his ministers or the widely accepted inability, lack of interest or unwillingness of even senior politicians to either go into or understand issues. One meeting of the cabinet committee on political affairs comes to mind. As the meeting concluded and ministers were getting up to leave, Rao mentioned in passing that a resolution was coming up at the UN to repeal a motion equating Zionism with racism. India will be voting for the resolution, he casually said.
It was the first step in a chain of events that led to the establishment of full diplomatic relations with Israel, culminating in the creation of a crucial defence relationship with Tel Aviv. Rao was sure that if the subject had been tabled at the meeting, it would not have been passed. The way he dealt with it, few of the ministers realized the implications of what Rao had said. I happened to see the minutes of that meeting, hastily distributed the following day, which dutifully recorded that the CCPA had decided to vote in favour of the repeal in New York!
Few commentators have done justice to the human side of Rao, which was masked by his demeanour and his personality. A CWC meeting was in full swing when an aide brought a note to Rao, who read it, folded it, pursed his lips and immediately adjourned the meeting. Without a word, he got up and left. Everyone at the meeting wondered what prompted the abrupt adjournment. As usual, the best source on prime ministerial schedules, the special protection group, provided the answer, off-the-record, of course. Rao, it was well known, had a very close friendship with a woman journalist in New Delhi. The note brought to him conveyed news of her husband's death. Rao put off the CWC meeting to go to the journalist's house immediately to offer his condolences.
Rao seldom lost his temper. He often conquered his anger with a mix of sarcasm and cynicism. One exception was after the taliban stormed Kabul in September 1996, seized Mohammad Najibullah from a UN compound, castrated him and hanged him from a lamp post. H.D. Deve Gowda was then prime minister. When Rao met the then foreign secretary, Salman Haidar, at a wedding soon afterwards, he gave Haidar a rare dressing down because India had neither condoled Najibullah's death nor condemned the barbarity perpetrated on the streets of Kabul. The very next day, South Block issued a statement which met Rao's benchmarks for civility and decency in the case.
I met Rao whenever he came to Washington after he ceased to be prime minister. I recall one conversation with him a few months after Bill Clinton had made way for George W. Bush at the White House. The cynic in Rao said that Indians had anointed Clinton with a post-retirement sinecure in the US, a country which had too few experts on south Asia. Rao obviously had not bargained for Osama bin Laden. The terrorist attacks of September 11 saw think-tankers, practitioners of diplomacy, defence experts and others rushing after the Greenbacks that were subsequently pumped into south Asia, leaving Clinton far behind. But not entirely.