PAMULAPARTI Venkata Narasimha Rao did not stay long in the legal profession. But he brought all the skill and sophistry of the discipline with him to that particular brand of politics he pursues—precise, persistent and patient, perhaps much too patient for comfort.
He had perfected the art of lying low, only to show his hand later. And this is how he began at Delhi in 1991 when former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated and his widow, Sonia Gandhi, refused to step in. The Congress was then looking for an affable, elderly person who could fill the vacuum for the time being. He met the requirements.
At 70, Rao, did not seem likely to disturb the scheme of things some party leaders had in mind. Fifty-year-old Sharad Pawar was in no hurry. Arjun Singh could wait for a year or two till he had a feel of things. N.D. Tiwari was still regrouping a flock swept away by L.K. Advani's rath yatra. Rao's priority after taking over, first as Congress president and then as Prime Minister, was not to challenge his potential rivals whom he was confident of vanquishing in due course. His immediate concern was how to muster a majority for his minority government. Elected to lead the Congress, which had 220 members in a 543-strong Lok Sabha, he required all the jugglery to sustain himself and his party in power. He proved he was up to what was required. Although he claims to be a Gandhian, he has no qualms in employing means justified by the end. His emphasis is on strategy, not standards.
Though he always denounced the BJP as communal, he had a quid pro quo with it—keeping the Speaker's post for the Congress and giving deputy speakership in return. For the office of vice-president, he produced a person who, being a Dalit, was readily acceptable to all. And adept as he is in playing one party against another, Rao succeeded in having a Congressman as the President of India by dividing the Opposition. His moves were mistakenly seen by some as signs of the old Congress penchant for consensus-building. As soon as the illusion was created, he bared his fangs.
He engineered two splits in the Janata Dal, the first by dangling the carrot of ministership before Ajit Singh, and then finding yet another defector in Ram Lakhan Yadav, who too was taken into the ministry. Still he fell short of seven votes when a no-confidence motion came up against his government in the Lok Sabha. The allegation is that he bought all the seven. (The CBI is looking into the charge.) Simultaneously, he tightened his control over the party. Sharad Pawar was pushed to Maharashtra. Arjun Singh played into Rao's hands and was turned out of the Congress. Tiwari's exit was an accidental fallout.
The departure of such leaders weakened the Congress, but Rao's position became unassailable. He was now The Party. The CWC hardly met and the Congress Parliamentary Board remained only in name. The PMO was turned into the Congress headquarters.
And yet, Rao's strength became his weakness. He kept his own counsel and cut himself off from even his closest colleagues. Intelligence agencies became his source of information. He was correct in his assessment that the people were sick of the permit-licence raj. But he was wrong in taking them for granted. They had been fed on slogans of 'self-sufficiency' and 'development with tears' for 40 years. Now they were being told that a free market would bolster the economy and help them develop fast. For a person who swore by socialism, an effort to thaw a frozen economy was a courageous step. But, not knowing what made ordinary people tick, he provided all for development, little for social justice. The economic reforms programme degenerated into a mad race among the better-off to live still better. The rest of the country remained as deprived as before, although he pushed the annual GDP growth rate from 3.5 to 6.5 per cent.
And whatever limited praise he earned in the economic field was dissipated by his bungling on the governance front. His biggest failure was not to protect Babri Masjid. He vainly tried to cover up by launching a post facto tirade against the BJP. But so vehement was the criticism against Rao that he vowed to rebuild the mosque.
But then he is seldom serious about the promises he makes. When he assumed power, he promised to nail the Bofors kickback beneficiaries. Instead, he sent an official letter through the then foreign minister, Madhavsinh Solanki, to slow down the process. He also promised action against those involved in the bank scam, the biggest in India's history. A Joint Parliamentary Committee report found several ministers guilty. Rao's son was alleged to be involved. But he saw to it that no one was punished. And, typically, he did not give a ticket to the JPC chairman, Ram Niwas Mirdha.
Left to him, he would have accorded a quiet burial to the hawala scam. But the Court pushed the CBI, under the Prime Minister's charge, so hard that Rao found himself cornered. Still when it came to chargesheeting the suspects, he chose, among others, his political rival, BJP President L.K. Advani, and a potential challenger within the Congress, Madhavrao Scindia.
Corruption bothers him only when it becomes a personal embarrassment. Chandraswami was dumped when Rao found his own name linked with his. Again, adverse publicity made him admit that in the St Kitts case, he, as foreign minister, authorised the authentication of Ajeya Singh's forged signature to give V.P. Singh, his father, a bad name.
Owing moral responsibility is not his strong point. When things go wrong, he finds flaws in the strategy. Nor has he ever felt compelled to quit even when his integrity has been questioned. But if the situation develops in a favourable manner, he is there to claim the credit. It can be said that he was instrumental in bringing peace to Punjab. And mistakenly, he came to believe that the use of force would yield similar results in Kashmir and the Northeast. What he failed to realise was that Punjab always enjoyed emotional integration with the rest of India. The Congress never allowed that to happen either in Kashmir or in the North-east.
Today, when he has resigned from prime ministership after the worst drubbing his party has received since Independence and when his own position in the Congress is vulnerable, he wonders where he went wrong. Finding him reeling off facts and figures at several poll meetings, someone remarked that he should have gone into teaching. Perhaps, he was in the wrong profession.