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Bharat Ratna for P V Narasimha Rao: Congress’s Achilles heel, the PM it ‘forgot’


Sonia Gandhi, with whom the former PM shared a frosty relationship, says, “I welcome it. Why not?”

Speaking in Rajya Sabha on Wednesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a pointed attack on the Congress. He said the party never considered B R Ambedkar worthy of the Bharat Ratna and kept giving the honour to their “own family members”. He said the Congress, which named parks, streets, and squares after its “family members”, is now giving the BJP advice and lessons on social justice.

The government’s surprise decision to award Bharat Ratna to former PM P V Narasimha Rao of the Congress and earlier to former President Pranab Mukherjee, another Congress leader, fits well into the BJP’s larger political narrative. That the grand old party has always ignored its stalwarts outside the Gandhi family and played down their contributions to the country.

And Rao has always been an Achilles heel for the Congress, given the fraught relations Sonia Gandhi shared with him when the former was Prime Minister. The demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 under his watch as PM was another sore point. The decision to honour him with Bharat Ratna comes, interestingly, weeks after the opening of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya.

The Congress shunned Rao after he demitted office in 1996 after an eventful tenure that not just saw the Babri demolition but also the unshackling of the Indian economy and the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) bribery scandal. For years, the Congress refused to acknowledge Rao’s role in opening up the Indian economy, the biggest reforms India has seen since independence.

The Congress in recent years, however, made a conscious attempt to include Rao in the pantheon of Congress icons. It surprised many when Sonia lavished praise on the former PM in 2020, recounting his leadership skills and asserting that the party takes pride in his many accomplishments and contributions. Responding to Modi’s announcement, Sonia on Friday said, “I welcome it. Why not?”

The praise in 2020 was a refreshing break from the past, personally for her and politically for the party. By awarding Bharat Ratna to Rao, days after it honoured L K Advani with the highest civilian award, Modi hopes to sharpen his political messaging and the narrative that the BJP has not forgotten its stalwarts even when they have walked into the twilight of their political lives and has honoured a former Congress PM who his own forgot.

While Advani was at the centre of the Ram Temple movement, fingers were often pointed at Rao for the Babri Masjid demolition.

What went wrong between Sonia and Rao?

Sonia’s relations with Rao were frosty. And awarding the Bharat Ratna to him will result in refreshing memories and retelling of history. All this just months ahead of Lok Sabha elections, a topic the Congress will not want to be revisited.

The reasons for the UPA chairperson’s ties with Rao turning sour are a mix of many — personal, political, and perhaps ideological. Rao is the first PM outside the Nehru-Gandhi family to last a full term in office. And, ironically, he continues to be the only one from the Congress who does not have a memorial in the national capital. His body was not even allowed inside the 24, Akbar Road headquarters of the All India Congress Committee (AICC) when he died in December 2004, with his cortege parked on the pavement outside the main gate.

The Congress had pinned the blame for its defeat in the 1996 Lok Sabha election on Rao. And he was soon marginalised and forgotten. Rather, the party under the leadership of the Gandhis chose to forget Rao as well as his contributions.

Some of the reasons cited for Sonia’s disenchantment with Rao are real, some are hearsay, and some are intelligent conjectures. Whatever they may be, the bitterness was real

Rao was a senior minister in the Rajiv Gandhi government and had no plans to stay in Delhi after the 1991 Lok Sabha elections. He virtually decided to retire from active politics and move back to Hyderabad as soon as the elections were over. But Rajiv’s assassination upended all those plans.

With the likes of N D Tiwari, Arjun Singh, and Sharad Pawar throwing the hat in the ring, the selection of the next PM was turning out to be a difficult task for the Congress. Sonia had earlier declined the party’s proposal to take over as Congress president after Rajiv’s assassination. She was not interested in the PM’s post either

It is said those close to the Gandhi family — the likes of M L Fotedar and R K Dhawan — were against Tiwari, Singh, and Pawar. They favoured the “harmless” Rao. Singh too withdrew from the race later and favoured Rao to checkmate Pawar. But Rao was not Sonia’s first choice. She preferred the then vice president Shankar Dayal Sharma. However she did not object to Rao’s elevation and endorsed the proposal.

A Congress leader who was a minister in the Manmohan Singh government was witness to Rao’s meeting with Sonia after it was decided he would be the next Prime Minister. The leader, who happened to be there to meet V George at 10, Janpath, recalls that “when the door was opened for Rao to go in and meet Mrs Gandhi, Rao lay down prostrate on the floor”. It was his way of telling Sonia that he would remain loyal to her.

“The first break happened soon sometime in 1992. S Bangarappa was the Chief Minister of Karnataka. He wanted George, who was the private secretary of Rajiv Gandhi, to be given a Rajya Sabha ticket because George was instrumental in making him the CM. But Rao had other ideas. He wanted the ticket to be given to another leader. He skilfully tossed it into Gandhi’s court saying if she says I will give it to George. Gandhi was in a different state of mind. She never said yes and she never said no and the ticket went to the person who Rao wanted.”

It is said that the arrest of George’s brother-in-law in a TADA case was another pinprick. But the serious differences soon followed.

The demolition of the Babri Masjid became the rallying point for the likes of Arjun Singh and Tiwari to openly take on Rao. It is said that those close to Sonia at that time tacitly backed Singh and Tiwari. It was seen as backing by 10, Janpath. Singh and Tiwari used to meet Sonia to complain about the PM, which upset Rao. It is said that Singh and Tiwari had the blessings of 10, Janpath when they led an abortive political coup against Rao.

But things came to a head in 1995. Sonia was upset over the slow progress in the investigation into Rajiv’s assassination case.

“Gandhi had a meeting with the then Sri Lankan president Chandrika Kumaratunga. They shared a strong emotional bond. Talking about her husband’s assassination and the involvement of some LTTE elements who were now wandering freely around in Sri Lanka, Chandrika had mentioned in passing that India had not even sought their extradition … I think at that point she felt very disturbed,” a senior leader said.

In August of 1995, Gandhi openly accused the Rao government of going slow on the investigation into her husband’s assassination. “She felt he did not want the inquiry to proceed,” said a senior leader. So, Sonia shared an uneasy relationship with Rao even before she entered active politics, the leader added.

The rest is history. Rao was replaced by Sitaram Kesri as the Congress president after the party’s defeat in 1996. Two years later, he was denied a ticket in the 1998 Lok Sabha elections. Kesri declared the party would not give him a ticket because of his failure to protect the Babri Masjid.

And when Sonia took over as Congress president in 1998, she and those close to her ensured that Rao didn’t get a pride of place. It became natural for the party not to include his photograph at AICC plenary sessions alongside the pictures of other former Congress PMs. And the bitterness continued till his death and after.

Vinay Sitapati in his book Half Lion: How P.V. Narasimha Rao Transformed India writes that Rao’s family wanted him to be cremated in Delhi. He quotes Rao’s son Prabhakara as saying, “Soniaji did not want … him to be seen as an all-India leader.”

Campaigning during the Telangana Assembly polls last November, Modi said in Karimnagar that the region knows how “talent” had been insulted by “family arrogance”. He said, “This land gave the country a prime minister in the form of P V Narasimha Rao. But the Congress’s royal family didn’t like it and insulted him every stop of the way. That is not all. Even after Rao’s death, the Congress’s royal family did not leave a single opportunity to insult Rao.”

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