The soon-to-be-published posthumous autobiography of late Congress leader Arjun Singh titled A Grain of Sand in the Hourglass of Time has made a revelation which is very unlikely to emerge from the culture the age-old party has historically nurtured.
The book has revealed how the late Narasimha Rao, who had become the PM in 1991 after the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty witnessed the untimely death of its third frontline leader Rajiv Gandhi, reacted furiously to the suggestion that Rajiv's widow Sonia Gandhi be made the party chief. Why should always the party be linked to the dynastic family like the compartments of a train to its engine, he had retorted. Singh, who was a cabinet minister in Rao's government, said he was dumbfounded by the latter's reply and 'was truly disgusted'.
The then Congress treasurer Sitaram Kesri had further pursued the matter and said the best thing would have been to offer the position first to Sonia Gandhi. Rao, who by then seemed to have calmed down, said the suggestion could be tried but was not clear whether she would accept the offer or not.
Singh had also slammed Rao for the latter's casual handling of the Babri Masjid demolition issue in Dec 1992, an event which had changed India's future course of politics in the subsequent years. According to Singh, Rao was not convinced that the Babri could be demolished and had locked himself up inside a room when the crisis precipitated.
The revelations are significant, particularly when we consider the fact that Narasimha Rao is generally looked upon today as the architect of India's liberalised economy and hence a major Congress figure to have done the country some favour.
Back in the 1970s, Indira Gandhi had entrusted Rao with varying government responsibilities in New Delhi. After Indira's assassination, Rao tried to gain confidence of Rajiv but did not succeed much. However, he personally did not have a high regard for Rajiv as a leader.
He almost went into the oblivion but the killing of Rajiv gave a golden opportunity to him to return to political prominence. With no active politician from the Gandhi camp left to take over, Rao filled the leadership vacuum leaving dynasty loyalists like Arjun Singh in a bad taste.
People like Singh had hoped that Rao would be a temporary phenomenon and sidelined after the elections were over. It is said that President Zail Singh, following his face-off with Rajiv Gandhi in the late 1980s, had plans to make Arjun Singh the PM in place of Rajiv. Although Arjun Singh had 'decided to stand by Rajiv' at that time, he must have cursed his stars later for not giving a similar opportunity once Rajiv was gone. It is no surprise that Rao had found a natural foe in Singh.
Rao's strong leadership had dwarfed his critics
Arjun Singh and Sharad Pawar had seen the support Rao had commanded from the Congress leaders of south India and had felt compelled to back Rao as a probable parliamentary leader after the 1991 elections. There was also another angle to it.
The Congress leadership had perceived that Rao, as an outsider, would have little authority and buckle under pressure anytime for his government was a minority one. But Rao proved them wrong and, in an unexpected turn, chartered a new course for India and it was done by dismantling the very basic Nehruvian idea. This was something too much for the conservative Congressmen to digest and soon efforts were made to woo Sonia to 'rescue' the party for Rao's economic plans were perceived to be humiliating for the ideals of the nation's founding fathers. Rao, on the other hand, had understood that the Gandhis could not do the country much good.
Politically too, Rao was an ambitious party men for he had introduced organisational election in the party, something which was unbelievable by the Congress's standards. He had felt terribly betrayed by Advani for the latter had promised that the Babri mosque would not be harmed. Advani was arrested and religious organisations were banned following the riots at Ayodhya. But, yet his own party did not approve him to be a leader committed to secularism.
In foreign policy affairs also, Rao had scripted tales which were not familiar to the Indian establishment till the early 1990s. Yet, despite all this, Rao's stay in active politics did not last much long and Congress was back into the fold of the Gandhis after Sonia assumed party leadership in 1998.
Seeing Manmohan Singh's plight today, we remember Rao
Rao's absence could be felt even more today, when just like the early 1990s, India has been facing stiff economic challenges. Many quarters believe that Manmohan Singh, the then finance minister, was mainly responsible for the turnaround. But then, he has failed to turn things around this time, despite being the PM. The real reason: Sycophancy never gives birth to leaders.
Denouncing Rao's leadership would not belittle the late leader. Yes, Rao had failed to stop the Babri debacle but there are hard ground realities to defend that case. A leader like Arjun Singh, on the other hand, had failed miserably to deal with the Bhopal gas tragedy incident and played with fire by encouraging reservations politics in education. He did not see anything wrong in the Rajiv Gandhi government's steps on unlocking gates at Ayodhya and tactily supporting the Silanyas of the Ram Temple but later blamed Rao when the crisis spiralled out of control.
Rao gave his critics another day to live
He was also accused of misleading the Rajiv government in the Shah Bano case and even one of the conspirators behind the Babri demolition. Penning a book after the death of Rao could not cost Singh much (and now since he is also dead, the debate will be limited among experts and journos) and given Rao was a clear winner against the pro-dynastic lot in the race of leadership in the party, it is quite natural that the protesting voices would not give up its fight. Sonia Gandhi and her loyalists, who have led the party to nowhere today, may recall PV Narasimha Rao for all the wrong reasons today, but when we will ask history, the vote of confidence is bound to go Rao's way. For it was Rao's leadership which had given people like Arjun Singh, like the rest of India, another day to live to perhaps, criticise him.