As we celebrate silver jubilee of India’s tryst with free market, rarely one recalls PV Narasimha Rao with nostalgia; except for the hagiographical recent account of PV by Sanjaya Baru in “1991”. He has also been hailed for the Indo-China agreement on LAC (1993) by Shivshankar Menon in his book “Choices”. Otherwise, Rao been pilloried by both Arjun Singh, his arch political rival and Dr. Madhav Godbole, who resigned as Home Secretary, in their autobiographies, as the points man for the destruction of Babri Masjid. Sitapati’s biography is possibly the most balanced and nuanced assessment of PV, based on rare vignettes of primary material on this vexed issue.
The gravamen of charges against Rao rests on the allegation that he failed to impose President’s rule in UP under Act 356 and save Babri Masjid from destruction by hooligans. The legal conundrum in this case was that Article 356 could not have been invoked in anticipation of a constitutional breakdown; but only in the event of a constitutional breakdown. The Governor at that time also did not oblige, as he was an earlier BJP appointee. Interestingly Sitapati brings out that no Cabinet minister, including Arjun Singh, in the CCPA meeting advocated for invoking Article 356, possibly sensing the legal nicety and backlash involved. Therefore, becoming wise through hindsight, does not absolve any one of the Cabinet Ministers of that time of a collective collapse; to uphold the Nehruvian precept of secularism. It remains one darkest spots in India’s democratic history; apart from the Emergency imposed in 1975 and Gujarat and Delhi carnage of 2002 and 1984 respectively.
Interestingly Salman Khurshid’s take on the demolition is quite interesting: “With the destruction of Babri Masjid, the mobilizing potential of BJP has reduced”. Kurshid had not bargained for the euphoric emergence of Modi in 2014, his development agenda and his demagogic appeal for the youth.
Sitapati’s writes that the Supreme Court may have held invocation of Article 356 illegal, the Prime Minister might have lost the job, but it was a risk which PV should have taken. He likens Rao to Edmund Burke, who symbolized modern enlightenment as a product of tradition evolving over time. Yet the wily fox who had the instincts of a lion was denied a funeral in Delhi and refused entry in to party headquarters; and died unsung and embittered.
The book, however, seems to slip over the venality of wheeling, dealing in politics and the JMM bribery case, for which PV got a charge sheet, from the CBI. The Jain diary and the dark shadows of money laundering still looms large in Indian politics. Narasimha Rao can at best be called a modern day Chanakya or an Indian Machiavelli, who used his uncanny skills in politics and Burke’s sound vision in economics.
The author was a former Joint Secretary to Govt. of India