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Byline by M.J.Akbar: The Lonely Masks of Narasimha Rao

I had the privilege — and I do not use the word lightly – of working with Narasimha Rao after he became Prime Minister. I prefer not to resort to reminiscence in a column, but the occasion suggests a reason to do so. I had joined public life because of Rajiv Gandhi. Rajiv still has barely-disguised detractors, but I do want to reassert that he was one of the finest human beings to join Indian politics, which is why he was unfamiliar with its machinations. He was trapped, by mistakes, in a gulf of communalism, unable to steer between a violent, aggressive Hindutva on one side and the hectoring, provocative animus of the Shahi Imams and the Shahabuddins on the other. Narasimha Rao had watched the process, and knew that seeds sown in the Eighties would bear poison fruit under his watch. He found an extraordinarily cynical answer.

The Lonely Masks of Narasimha Rao

Most politicians understand politics. Rather fewer understand power. P.V. Narasimha Rao was a master craftsman of power. He knew its first fundamental law. When you share power, you increase it.

He had no particular qualms about whom he shared it with. On one side might be a drunk MP just purchased (without his knowledge, naturally) by an intermediary; on the other side the swarthy self-caricature of the beady Chandraswami; on the third a list of astrologers as long as the train journey from Delhi to Chennai. If they served the cause they were welcome.

He knew the second law as well. You use power to either increase the number of your friends or to increase the number of your enemies. Paradoxically, he did both.

He did not see power as the privilege of a coterie, a traditional fact of the Congress. That was the principal reason why he did not allow his sons, also professional politicians, to interfere in Delhi — at least until relatives began to work the cream towards the end of his five years in power. Which brings us to the most significant fact of his time in office. We think of him serving a single term as Prime Minister. He had two terms, split by 6 December 1992, the day on which the Babri mosque was demolished while he remained deliberately indifferent. He changed in almost every sphere of governance, including the reformist economic policy for which he is justly lauded.

Rao’s exceptional genius was his intellect which, when reinforced with his learning, became truly formidable. His finest skills were in evidence after he became Prime Minister as a consequence of a tragedy, the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. The shock, a thud across the heart of the nation, was compounded by an economic meltdown. If it takes a crisis to discover a man, then the hour had found Narasimha Rao. He went on radio and television to deliver a startling message: most of what we had held sacred as economic policy had failed, and it was time to think outside quasi-socialism’s tattered box. The courage and drama of that challenge seems difficult to convey after a dozen years in which reform might have become the new quasi-socialism. He then broke every convention by selecting Dr Manmohan Singh as his finance minister, a bureaucrat known, in limited circles, for his integrity, both intellectual and fiscal. This was a startling message too. The finance ministry was not going to be a cockpit of deals and deliveries. A non-political finance minister was a virtual oxymoron.

Narasimha Rao had found life when he was preparing for a quiet end. Weakened, physically and emotionally, by a bypass operation, he did not contest the 1991 general elections. But when destiny offered him an opportunity, he was determined to make his last hour also his finest.

He brought some unusual talents to the management of power. He was a Master of Absence. In other words, he could, when he wanted, dilute his presence to the point where he became minimalist. But it was always his choice. Few remember, for instance, that he was home minister of India when anti-Sikh riots broke out across the country in the wake of Mrs Indira Gandhi’s assassination. He was also a Master of Inaction. Inaction did not mean indecision. It simply meant that he had decided not to take a decision. He had learnt a great deal from his mentor, Mrs Gandhi. He was fond of one story about her. When Mrs Gandhi was scouting for a candidate to become President, the choice narrowed down to Giani Zail Singh and Narasimha Rao, both ministers in her Cabinet. Rao was scheduled to go to some godforsaken corner of the globe as the deadline approached. His friends urged him to remain in Delhi, within Mrs Gandhi’s proximity. He laughed off the suggestion. If Mrs Gandhi wanted to make him President of India she would summon him from Timbuktu if necessary. If she did not want to, he could be cleaning the mat outside the door and she would not.

I had the privilege — and I do not use the word lightly — of working with Narasimha Rao after he became Prime Minister. I prefer not to resort to reminiscence in a column, but the occasion suggests a reason to do so. I had joined public life because of Rajiv Gandhi. Rajiv still has barely-disguised detractors, but I do want to reassert that he was one of the finest human beings to join Indian politics, which is why he was unfamiliar with its machinations. He was trapped, by mistakes, in a gulf of communalism, unable to steer between a violent, aggressive Hindutva on one side and the hectoring, provocative animus of the Shahi Imams and the Shahabuddins on the other. Narasimha Rao had watched the process, and knew that seeds sown in the Eighties would bear poison fruit under his watch. He found an extraordinarily cynical answer. He slept through the destruction of the Babri mosque. Later, privately, he explained that the BJP was destroying its principal emotive issue along with the mosque.

He was never very impressed with the quality of Muslim Congressmen. He had nothing but contempt for them after he bought out each one of them with a few tidbits after 6 December. Not a single Congress minister, official or MP resigned in protest after the destruction of the mosque. No one asked for his resignation after the initial shock. Each one queued up for promotion or office, which Rao was happy to offer. As it turned out, I was the only person who resigned from government, when I discovered on the evening of 6 December what everyone else who had tried to call Rao knew, that he took no action because he considered inaction the solution rather than the problem. But that was immaterial because I had had enough of politics by then. If the Congress wonders why Muslims in UP and Bihar still will not vote for the party, perhaps it might want to check out what its most prominent faces did in December 1992 and January 1993.

Once Narasimha Rao survived, he became a different and contradictory leader. The bold visionary of economic reform retreated as far as he could into conventional budgets that clearly exasperated Dr Manmohan Singh. Perhaps he felt that votes were inextricable from the old dialectic. There may have been some political justification for this, but there was none for the sudden use of power to malign those who refused to be fully obedient. M.L. Fotedar, who played a significant role in making Rao Prime Minister, Arjun Singh, Natwar Singh and Madhavrao Scindia are only the most significant names that come to mind. Simultaneously, men like Chandraswami were given freedom to soar over the system. The crucial difference was just this: the man who recognised that power expanded when you shared it, now began to grasp power only for himself. He lost what he had received as well as what he had earned.

Rao had time for his own post-mortem, and did what he could to explain his political decisions. Strangely, for a politician in need of votes, he was loath to explain crucial events while in office. When he did explain, he was rather good at it. He told voters, for instance, that they had nothing to fear from foreign capital, since the foreigner who had paid for the factory would never be able to lift that factory and take it away from India. His reticence over Babri enabled his foes to paint him in the colours they wanted, generally light saffron. But he lived long enough to see the ironies of life. He was driven out of the leadership of the Congress for getting 145 seats in the Lok Sabha. A dozen years later the Congress is triumphant because it has won 142 seats in the same Lok Sabha. The wheels of party politics have been in a rut since 1991.

It was notable, and entirely apposite, that Rao should choose fiction as the medium for his autobiography. To the end he needed to camouflage his mind. But he must have entered each word into his computer with a thin smile that only occasionally expanded into an oblique laugh. The title was a giveaway, but inadequate. Instead of The Insider the book should have been called The Lonely Insider. It was the loneliness of a long-distance Brahmin runner, for the intellectual in him was also the Brahmin in him. He did not advertise his innate superiority of insight and scholarship. There was no need to. It was obvious. But he could never be one of the boys, if you see what I mean.

Is that because he was always one of the adults?