| The author is an independent researcher and political analyst
P.V. Narasimha Rao's manner of leaving had all the hallmarks of his long, tempestuous political life. He left on the eve of the 80th birthday of the man he called his life-long friend and adversary, Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He left within six months of the return of the Congress to power with a Gandhi in the steering room and his former finance minister as head of government.
Yet in his moment of passing, in a departure from all norms for all previous Congress prime ministers till date, he was cremated not in New Delhi but in Hyderabad. The tributes were fulsome but restrained. For the fact is his own party never forgave him for the ultimate failure: to lead it back to the seat of power.
There is little doubt that his policies or rather his procrastination cost it dear. The demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992 will remain a blot on his whole career, and also set him in contrast with other Congress premiers of the past. In New Delhi in 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru walked into a rioting mob and slapped a man. The young Indira worked in the refugee camps of Purana Qila and, despite her central role in fanning the flames, did not hesitate to order the army into action in Punjab in 1984.
Rao's record is even worse than it appears at first sight. He was Union home minister in 1984, with no record that as an honest Nehruvian he took steps to stop the massacres not far from the throne of power. As PM, he became the first to grace the likes of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad with meetings with the elected head of India's government. And in 1993, weeks after the masjid came crashing to the ground, he played petty politics while India's financial capital was transformed into a killing field.
More than any other PM since independence, he also helped debase his own office. The low point came in the vote of confidence in 1993 when he met small groups of MPs, cajoling, threatening and pleading in turn. He went on to become the first Indian prime minister to be tried in not one but three cases, in all of which he was acquitted. The law may have let him off but history may not be as kind a judge.
But no assessment of Rao can solely focus on his failure as a guardian of the order state, as an inept leader when it came to mass politics and as a politician for whom power became an end in itself. Rao inherited the shell of a once-powerful party, which was already in a state of decline both in institutional and ideological terms.
In 1991, when he was elected to succeed Rajiv Gandhi, first as working president of the Congress and then as head of a minority government, few thought he would be able to affect the kind of sweeping and epochal changes that he did.
The assassination of Rajiv Gandhi left the party rudderless, and PV was only a compromise candidate presiding over a cabal of unruly and sullen chieftains. Punjab was far from settled and few saw an end to terror there. Jammu and Kashmir was not only ungovernable but a stick for the West to beat India with at a time of a huge debt. Assam had only been brought under control earlier in the year after Chandra Shekhar ordered Operation Bajrang. And Tamil Nadu, a traditionally peaceful state, was in turmoil after the killing of Rajiv and the dismissal of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government. At the macro level, the politics of Mandal and para-Mandal in the form of Dalit assertion may not have propelled V.P. Singh back to power, but they were recasting the equations in countryside and town, especially in the North.
Compare this with the picture by the time he demitted office. Punjab had seen a return to democracy. Elections were scheduled for the state assembly in Jammu and Kashmir, and even the 13-day Vajpayee regime had to endorse the process. The Congress had returned to power in Assam and though under pressure from a unified opposition, it had at least tamed the insurgency.
Neither Arjun Singh nor Sharad Pawar was able to shake Rao off course as he consolidated his position in the party. Most important, at least till the defeat in the assembly elections in the South in 1994, he stayed on course with the reforms.
As he told an interviewer in May 2004, it was his job to let the finance minister get on with his work. If Manmohan Singh was the warrior who cut the Gordian knot of the old licence-permit raj, Rao was his general and his shield, the one who took the flak and kept his own party in check. The popular chronicler of the raj, Gurcharan Das, rightly argues that Rao was not Thatcher or Deng. But he lacked the huge public endorsement of the former and headed a complex, multi-layered society where the Congress, though in office, no longer was the power it once was.
In doing so, Rao effected changes in more than one way. Most debates have and should focus on the impact of the liberalization era on jobs and growth, poverty and inequity. Few have made a connection between the fact that the first prime minister from peninsular India turned out to leave behind a legacy so different from most of his predecessors, all of whom were from north of the Vin-dhyas. His finance minister in turn was from the most dynamic and outward-looking region in north India, a province very different in economic texture from the Gangetic heartland.
Further, the Rao period saw the early rapprochement of the Congress with the Mandal and regionalist forces. It was Rao's support for the Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party government in Lucknow in 1993 that presaged the post-poll accord that led to the United Front government. His party has never been able to make peace with that legacy, but it is a measure of the times that a score in the range of 140 MPs is now regarded as a great victory, while in his time it was seen as a resounding defeat.
Here, one must join those who criticize Rao. For he helped sunder the links of the Congress and the under-classes, even as the regime of sleaze alienated the middle classes. Neither the losers nor the gainers from reforms stuck by the great old party. It required further routs and reverses before it turned back to the Gandhi-Nehru family and embarked on the task of revival.
But even here, Rao's legacy will stay with it in more ways than one. Try as hard as it might, it cannot return to the ways of the pre-1991 economy. And despite its best ambitions, it will find it difficult to ignore the non-confrontational legacy he bequeathed to the Congress when it came to working with other parties.
But even to return to power in its truncated version, the Congress had to shun his legacy. It was simply too divisive for its old social base. It is in fact intriguing that the self-portrait that comes through in his The Insider is so much at odds with the public memory of him. Anand, as he calls himself, is a crystal-pure revolutionary, who is constantly at odds with his own party as it slips into a life of comfort and style. The great issues that move Anand are the ones that are the life-blood of village society: the land and its wealth, the deprivation of the poor and the yearning for a better life.
It is a measure of the enigma that was Rao that even those who decry his legacy of reform will be forced to live with and rework it. His mark on the body politic, and more so on the economy, will mark him out as a reluctant but decisive agent of change. There was little of India that was left untouched even if Indians continue to debate and dispute the nature of the legacy.