A Long Due Bharat Ratna—Narasimha Rao I Met Three Decades Ago
Opinion Updated: February 9, 2024, 6:08 pm IST
I was once at the late Rajesh Pilot’s residence where the annual Kisan lunch was organised. As a reporter, my attention was fixed on the former Prime Minister, PV Narsimha Rao, who had been invited as a guest. Though Rao was no longer in office, he still held the position of leader within the Congress parliamentary party. At that time, the then Congress party president, Sitaram Kesri, had issued him an ultimatum to resign from his post as parliamentary party leader, and there was mounting pressure on him to do so. For Rao, time was of the essence. Despite the presence of Special Protection Group (SPG) security making it difficult to approach him for a TV interview, I was very keen to have his statement captured on camera.
As he concluded his lunch and began to make his way towards his car, I impulsively moved towards him. Before I could fully comprehend the situation, a member of the SPG security team struck me, causing me to fall to the ground. Mr. Rao was preparing to enter his car when I cried out, “Mr. Rao, your security personnel are assaulting me.” Without hesitation, Rao emerged from the car and assured me that no harm would come to me. I rose to my feet, thrust my microphone towards him, and asked, “Will you resign?” He responded forcefully, “The question does not arise.” With that, I had my exclusive headline, and his convoy departed.
A Unique Demeanour
For a young reporter like myself, it was a significant scoop. The following day, it dominated the front pages of all the newspapers. During this time, television news was still in its infancy, and reporters such as myself were often referred to as “bite collectors”. While we were not yet treated as celebrities, the media landscape was relatively free, affording us the opportunity to pose questions to figures of political importance, including prime ministers.
Rao, however, was somewhat unique in his demeanour, not particularly camera-friendly. On any other occasion, he might have evaded my question. Yet, upon witnessing me being accosted by his security detail, he graciously obliged with his statement. Even now, three decades later, that image of him remains etched in my memory. And today, as he is posthumously honoured with the Bharat Ratna, I fondly recollect that encounter.
Manmohan Singh & Rao: A Formidable Duo
Narsimha Rao was, in the truest sense, an accidental Prime Minister. Had Rajiv Gandhi not been assassinated midway through the 1991 Lok Sabha elections, Rao might have faded into political obscurity. Initially denied a ticket to contest the Lok Sabha elections, he had relocated his base to Hyderabad. However, following Rajiv Gandhi’s death, he not only ascended to the presidency of the party but also later assumed the role of Prime Minister.
Rao was not a charismatic mass leader by any means; the then tall Congress leaders like Sharad Pawar and Arjun Singh boasted stronger claims to the premiership. Yet, Rao, perceived as the least contentious choice among them, emerged as the preferred candidate among Congress MPs. India was grappling with severe economic challenges, necessitating urgent attention. Rao’s astuteness lay in appointing a professional economist like Manmohan Singh as Finance Minister, eschewing the selection of a politician. Recognising the imperative to insulate the economy from political machinations, Rao bluntly informed Singh, “You manage the economy, I will manage politics.”
Drivers Of Growth
Rao’s decision to appoint Manmohan Singh proved pivotal in India’s political trajectory. His keen understanding of the Indian economy led him to conclude that the socialist model of development had failed, and perpetuating it would mean more misery for the people. Despite widespread scepticism towards market economies and global economic institutions, Rao boldly pursued economic liberalisation, dismantling bureaucratic impediments and initiating reforms to attract foreign investment. His actions were courageous, and seemingly unpopular. There was a powerful club of opinion makers, trained as they were in Left-of-the-Centre ideology, ever ready to come down heavily on going against the path travelled thus far.
Yet, they were instrumental in steering the country towards economic growth. Today, as India emerges as one of the world’s fastest-growing economies and prepares to claim the mantle of the third-largest economy, credit must be accorded to the formidable duo of Rao and Manmohan Singh.
In my estimation, Rao remains one of the most underestimated Prime Ministers in Indian history. However, while celebrating his accomplishments, one cannot ignore his failures. Nevertheless, Rao played a pivotal role in restoring stability to regions plagued by violence, such as Punjab and Kashmir. Upon assuming office, both states were engulfed in turmoil; by the time he departed, the situation had markedly improved. Undoubtedly, the kind of tactics he used to stay in power and the political scandals that followed tarnished his legacy. Yet, Rao’s erudition, multilingualism, and bold leadership continue to command respect.
On Charan Singh & Political Speculation
However, the contribution of another Prime Minister, Charan Singh, who has also been posthumously awarded the Bharat Ratna alongside Rao, mostly remains outside the realm of governance and is more associated with providing a platform for backward politics. Charan Singh’s tenure was brief, and he never faced Parliament as Prime Minister. A staunch advocate for farmers’ rights and a vocal opponent of the Congress, Charan Singh’s legacy is viewed through a political lens. The Bharat Ratna awarded to him, announced amidst speculation regarding his grandson’s political affiliations, may carry political implications. As in the case of Karpoori Thakur in Bihar, whose posthumous honour led to a political realignment, Charan Singh’s award sparks similar speculation.
M.S. Swaminathan undoubtedly stands among India’s greatest luminaries. Dubbed the father of the Green Revolution, he played a pivotal role in making India self-sufficient in food grain production. Despite Lal Bahadur Shastri’s initial initiative, it was Swaminathan who translated the vision into reality.
With the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seeking to expand its footprint in South India, the Bharat Ratna conferred upon Swaminathan and Rao, the latter being a Telugu leader, could be interpreted as yet another attempt to bolster its presence south of the Vindhyas. However, given the BJP’s limited influence in states like Kerala and Tamil Nadu, the potential impact of such honours on the party’s fortunes remains uncertain in near future.
(Ashutosh is author of ‘Hindu Rashtra’ and Editor, satyahindi.com.)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author
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