Outsider in his party

Sadly for Narasimha Rao, his affair with the Congress was one-sided

Former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, while delivering the 7th R.N. Kao Memorial lecture last week shared a vignette about someone it appears we are condemned to forget, P.V. Narasimha Rao. In that tiny tidbit, Kalam gave us a glimpse of how the former prime minister and once Congress president worked. On the one hand, he was alive to the proprieties of parliamentary traditions and, on the other, the nugget revealed that he was not chasing history. Rao has seldom received credit for any accomplishment and has more often than not been in the public eye for his miscalculations and omissions.

The disclosure about Rao and the bomb is, in any case, not new. The PM who succeeded him, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, as well as K. Subrahmanyam, another person closely associated with the nuclear policy, had previously acknowledged Rao's key role in operationalising India's bomb. This, however, is not about the unsung hero or about parliamentary niceties, but about Rao and his party, the Congress.

The man himself is singularly unusual among contemporary PMs. He was the last PM of a single-party cabinet and also the last to head both government and party at the same time. Significantly, he was also probably the last PM who exercised real power, controlled Parliament, set goals, determined policy lines and got decisions executed. As a leader, Rao backed his own political instincts and was willing to take bold decisions, which he thought would benefit the country and his party, even if it made him unpopular.

He was elected leader of the Congress and chosen to head the government not because he held specific views, but probably because he did not seem to have any. For those who elected him, Rao was, in many ways, the quintessential party man. And he remained so to the very end. He is reported to have said a day before he was sworn in as PM, "As an individual, I feel overwhelmed, utterly humble. But as a representative of a great party, I feel like a colossus." He was clearly proud of his party. In 1996, when he was defeated and faced a revolt within his party, he told veteran journalist Kuldip Nayar, "Those who ask for my resignation do not appreciate my agony on the compulsion to continue. I have no choice. I have to rehabilitate the party, revive its ethos and put it back on the track." Once again, it was the party.

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