Friends and admirers from across the country paid rich tributes to former PM P V Narasimha Rao on his 97th birth anniversary last week and recalled his sagacity and statesmanship in pulling India out of the economic crisis of 1991 and for stamping out terrorism and secessionism in Punjab. PM Narendra Modi was the first off the mark with a glowing tribute to his predecessor on Twitter. Modi said, “Remembering our former PM Shri P V Narasimha Rao on his birth anniversary. Shri Rao is widely respected as a statesman who provided valuable leadership during a critical period of India’s history. Blessed with immense wisdom, he made a mark as a distinguished scholar as well”.
The TRS government in Telangana observed the day by holding events to remind the people about Rao’s judicious and philosophical leadership at a critical moment in India’s history and took immense pride in the fact that Rao was not just a Telugu bidda, but also a Telangana bidda. Its Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao said that “the people will remember forever and ever” the great services rendered by Rao. The chief minister has earlier urged the Centre to confer the Bharat Ratna on Rao.
On the other hand, the Congress, the party to which Rao owed allegiance all through his life, was not so enthused. It seemed to be dragging its feet when it put out a tweet hours later remembering Rao for pushing through legislative measures in Parliament although he headed a minority government. The party underplayed the fact that he had courageously opened up the economy, retrieved Punjab from the clutches of hardcore terrorists and laid the foundation for a new India. This is in line with its policy of underplaying the contributions of party leaders not belonging to the Nehru-Gandhi family.
Rao became prime minister at a very critical time. When he took oath as PM, the country’s foreign exchange reserves were perilously low—`2,100 crore—just enough to pay bills for a fortnight. The previous government headed by Chandra Shekhar had mortgaged gold to raise foreign exchange of US $200 million. Rao realised that India’s economy would go into a spiral if he continued with the moth-eaten socialism of the Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi variety.
The country could emerge out of its economic crisis only if he dismantled the licence-permit raj and encouraged foreign direct investment. He chose Manmohan Singh as his finance minister and backed him to the hilt, shielding him from critics within the Congress and the communists who saw him as an American lackey. The Rao-Singh combine systematically opened up the economy and things started looking up. Indians began to feel that they could compete with the rest of the world. In short, Rao enabled Indians to transit from hopelessness to hope.
However, the Congress has always been reluctant to give him his due. This is generally in line with the attitude of the party to outstanding national leaders who did not belong to the Nehru-Gandhi family. Starting from the days of Nehru, the party has systematically tried to wipe out Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Subhas Chandra Bose, B R Ambedkar, Syama Prasad Mookerjee and a host of other leaders from the national psyche.
Over the years, every party statement and document has eulogised Nehru, Indira and Rajiv Gandhi and generally ignored the work of others, including that of Rao, who was one of India’s best prime ministers. This is most unfortunate because the contribution of each of these leaders is phenomenal. The political map of India would not be what it is but for Sardar Patel, and Dr Ambedkar’s contribution to the drafting of the Constitution is too well known. The new India that we see today would never have been possible if Rao did not have the gumption to discard the policies of the Nehru-Gandhis and to put the country on a new growth trajectory. The country’s foreign exchange reserves stood at nearly US $140 billion when he died in 2004.
The BJP has cashed in on the reluctance of the Congress to acknowledge the immense contribution of its own leaders and has almost effortlessly appropriated them. The first was Sardar Patel. This process began sometime ago, when Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L K Advani were at the helm of the party. Modi stepped up the efforts to accord due recognition to Sardar Patel by launching a major project in Gujarat to remember the Sardar which includes erection of the tallest statue in the world. It is now too late for the Congress to retrieve one of its most valuable treasures. Slowly but surely, the party has allowed one of its icons to slip out of its hands.
Dr Ambedkar is the icon of the BSP and he also finds pride of place in the BJP’s scheme of things. Both these leaders have virtually been snatched away from the Congress pantheon and India’s oldest party is finding it difficult to shake off the image of belonging to just one parivar—the Nehru-Gandhi family. Rao is yet another icon which the family-centric Congress has virtually discarded. Never one to miss out on an opportunity, the BJP, in recent years, has made it a point to remind the nation of the stellar contribution of Rao.
The Modi government has already decided to act on the Telangana Assembly resolution to build a fitting memorial for Rao. Going by the alacrity of PM Modi on Rao’s recent birth anniversary and the warmth and respect that he has displayed for his predecessor, it is only a matter of time before the BJP wrests this Congress icon as well. In any case, India should not forget this Prophet of Boom!
A Surya Prakash
Chairman, Prasar Bharati