Tearing down Narasimha Rao

Justice Liberhan has delivered only two real surprises in his report. It is also entirely understandable why only one has been taken note of in political debate. That, indeed, is his repeated censure of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. But the other real surprise, in fact even bigger and more significant than the somewhat gratuitous indictment of Vajpayee, has gone unnoticed and that is entirely understandable too. In fact, the Liberhan Commission's total exoneration of Narasimha Rao has left the BJP cold, the left-secular intelligentsia stunned, and the Congress confused.

You can understand why the BJP does not care. You can also understand the indifference of the left-secular intelligentsia, because they had always led the canard that Rao was somehow complicit in that crime, that he was a closet Jan Sanghi. Pull down his dhoti, and you will find a pair of khaki shorts, they would say. But why is the Congress silent and unwilling to even acknowledge with a sense of vindication if not joy that they, their government and their prime minister were not to blame, and have been unfairly pilloried and punished for a crime Justice Liberhan says they never committed? That's because the commission destroys the canard they themselves have built against their own party. They did it not because they really believed Rao was a bigot and complicit in the destruction. Most of them (remember the ones who broke away from the party in the name of genuine secularism then?) saw it as a great excuse to pressure the then hands-off Sonia Gandhi to bless an insiders' coup, and replace Rao, preferably with Arjun Singh. Rao survived many internal coup attempts, but never recovered from the damage. In 1998, Sitaram Kesri even denied him a ticket to contest for the Lok Sabha.

Those who knew Rao well, including, I dare say, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, would never doubt his secular commitment. That he was a believer, visited temples, participated in rituals is also well known, and does not undermine that commitment. It is much easier for a non-believer to be secular. He was also cast in the old mould of Indian politics. So he would keep open communication and relationships with all sides, including the BJP. In fact, he had a particularly warm relationship with Vajpayee remember that exchange at a political function where he described Vajpayee as a "guru" in politics and Vajpayee said Rao, instead, was the guru of gurus, "guru ghantaal"? But if anybody says he celebrated secretly when Babri fell, he does this complex and fascinating, wise but cynical, and patriotic but venal politician a great injustice.

But, for a long time, there were so many stories floating around about his "complicity" and these were mostly believed. Why did he take the BJP leaders' word that Babri won't be harmed? Why did he not go over the state government's head to order Central forces to open fire? Why did he not at once dismiss Kalyan Singh's government and take control of the state? The conclusion therefore was that deep down he was happy that Babri had been destroyed.

Politicians become much nicer beings when out of power, particularly if you are willing to go spend time with them in their years of wilderness. And I did that a few times with Rao, particularly during some periods of great crisis, notably the war in Kargil. I would land up in his Motilal Nehru Marg home (where Chief Election Commissioner Naveen Chawla now lives) and ask him: so how would Narasimha Rao have handled this crisis? He was out of politics, so I did not feel the pressure to be judgmental about him. But he was a wise man with six decades of experience and a remarkable memory. So as a student of political history you always learnt something. He was facing so many court cases, from corruption to bribery (he was eventually acquitted in all) and was left to fend for himself. Lonely, in a mostly empty home with some books, newspapers, an old treadmill and just a few pieces of creaky furniture and a computer as his only possessions, he was usually happy to see me. He enjoyed telling stories like a lonely grandfather. Sometimes he laughed at his own fate. His most memorable line to me, talking about the many cases he was facing, was: koyi kehta hai maine murgi churayee, koyi kehta hai murgi ke ande, par sab kehte hain ke hoon to chor (somebody says I stole the hen, some say I stole the eggs, but they all agree I am a thief anyway). And he would then laugh, almost giggle, for just about 15 seconds.

He knew I was always pumping him for information, and sometimes asked if I went home and noted it down some place. With time he dropped some reserve and spoke more freely about a lot that happened in the past, a political historian's delight. But on two issues he would go absolutely quiet: on what happened in the winter of 1996 when The New York Times said he had prepared to test at Pokharan but pulled back under American pressure, and second, when I probed him on how exactly did he lose control in Ayodhya. On Ayodhya, he would say, he will tell the commission whatever he has to say. On Pokharan, he would just say, arre bhai, kuchch to mere saath chita mein jaane do (leave something to take to my pyre).

But one afternoon, when I had dropped by in the middle of the Kargil war, he opened up on Ayodhya and gave his answers to the common questions listed earlier in this article. Why did he not ask the Central forces to open fire? What were the mobs attacking the mosque shouting, he asked, "Ram, Ram"? What would the soldiers opening fire at them have been chanting to themselves while following my orders to kill maybe hundreds "Ram, Ram?" Reading the confusion on my face, he said, what if some of the troops turned around and joined the mobs instead? It could have unleashed a fire that would have consumed all of India. Then: why did he not dismiss Kalyan Singh? Mere dismissal, he said, does not mean you can take control. It takes a day or so appointing advisors, sending them to Lucknow, taking control of the state. Meanwhile, what had to happen would have happened and there would have been no Kalyan Singh to blame either. And why did he trust BJP's leaders? "It was Advani," he said, "and he will be made to pay for it." This was obviously a reference to how he had trapped a totally innocent Advani in the Jain hawala case. One thing you wouldn't associate with Rao was forgiveness.

He surely failed as prime minister to prevent the tragedy at Ayodhya. But his rivals in the Congress did their own party such disservice by spreading the canard that his (and their) government was responsible for that crime. This, more than anything else, lost them the Muslim vote in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and gifted Mulayam Singh Yadav the "M" for his M-Y (Muslim-Yadav) vote bank. It is this lost vote bank that Rahul Gandhi is now trying to win back. But any dispassionate reading of recent political history will tell you that this is a self-inflicted injury. The Congress has itself built a mythology whereby the Muslims have come to hold their party as responsible for Babri as the BJP. And since they always voted against the BJP anyway, now they could only punish the Congress.

If you take Justice Liberhan's indictment of so many in the BJP seriously, you cannot at the same time dismiss his exoneration of Rao, and the government, and the Congress Party under him. You surely cannot put the clock back on so much injustice done to him, like not even allowing his body to be taken inside the AICC building. But the least you can do now is to give him a memorial spot too along the Yamuna as one of our more significant (and secular) prime ministers who led us creditably through five difficult years, crafted our post-Cold War diplomacy, launched economic reform and, most significantly, discovered the political talent and promise of a quiet economist called Manmohan Singh.


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