ELECTORAL reverses did not entirely bring bad luck for Narasimha Rao. It left scope for him to extract something to his advantage. And he utilised this to the hilt, using his friends in the Opposition as well as the Congress.
Rao first tapped his quiet supporter, Janata Dal chief Laloo Prasad Yadav, to convince the Left and the National Front that the secular parties should be more concerned about stalling BJP attempts to form the government than being fussy about its 'Congress minus Rao' precondition for an arrangement at the Centre. That explains why the CPI(M) quietly retracted its statement that it would solicit Congress support only without Rao. In fact, Jyoti Basu's reluctance to head a crippled government made a Congress-NF coalition a distinct, if theoretical, possibility.
Once the Left relented, everything was smooth going for Rao. He wanted to lead the Congress in Parliament and he had his way. Close aides say Rao has carved out a key role in future governance even in absentia, in the process acquiring a degree of immunity against his possible trial in corruption cases like hawala and the Jharkhand bribery episode.
Rao has ensured that any bargain and debate between the government and the Congress will be through him. He will have to be consulted for every key legislation the government proposes to bring in. For, a non-BJP regime would survive at his party's mercy alone.
Apart from stonewalling any investigation against him by the new government, Rao will always be within striking distance of power. If his manipulative skills—which he displayed while catapulting his minority regime into a majority one five years ago—work and he pulls up a working majority at a later stage, Rao can always bring a Congress-dependent regime down and stake claim himself. For that, getting elected as the CPP chief was more important than continuing as the party chief.
And politically, Rao has used the hung Parliament to launder the "anti-Muslim" image he acquired in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition by offering the single-most powerful resistance to the BJP. After five years of an indeterminate stand vis-a-vis the mandir issue, he is again a die-hard secularist in true Congress tradition. After all, political compulsions make and unmake people's image and Rao is a case in point.