How Congress lost PV Narasimha Rao, its hero of liberalisation, ‘Look East’ and Israel policies

“The government is committed to removing the cobwebs that come in the way of rapid industrialisation. We will work towards making India internationally competitive, taking full advantage of modern science and technology and opportunities offered by the evolving global.”

Words spoken in dull monotone on 22 June, 1991. But PV Narasimha Rao’s first speech a day after he became India’s prime minister has proved no less transformative than Nehru’s stirring words from destiny’s womb, “At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.”

Rao’s words sprang into action almost immediately, quietly infusing his path-altering industrial policy document that preceded then finance minister Manmohan Singh’s celebrated Budget speech by a few hours. These words then went on to blood India’s cloistered, moribund economy with life, bursting open arteries clogged from four decades of Stalinist socialism, permit raj, protectionism, fiscal deficit, and snail-like growth.

With liberalisation, Rao saved an India standing just 15 days from bankruptcy. So massive has been the impact that we tend to forget some of his other stellar contributions.

Rao was the first prime minister to truly enact the ‘Look East Policy’. With the fall of the Soviet Union, India strengthened the Association of South East Asian Nation (ASEAN) and started reaching out to Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and others.

Narendra Modi embraced that legacy early in his tenure, and it still works as our economic and strategic bulwark against China in the region.

Rao was also the prime minister who established full diplomatic ties with Israel. India under him voted to overturn a 1975 United Nations resolution which stated, “Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination.”

Not many credit him with ending the Punjab militancy. He went against all advice and pushed for an elected government, overseeing polls in 1992 after which Beant Singh came to power, and KPS Gill took over as the state police chief. Punjab insurgency could never stare away from that cold barrel of the gun.

While Rao is widely criticised for mutely watching the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, he handled the aftermath of the 1993 Mumbai serial blasts aggressively, took the West on his side, and put the stigma of terrorism on Pakistan from which it has never recovered.

Many argue PV Narasimha Rao was India’s finest prime minister, but not his own Congress party and its dynastic ‘high command’.

Books like ‘Half Lion: The PM Who Transformed India’ describe the humiliation Rao suffered from the party even in death. The Congress under Sonia Gandhi, according to several accounts, did not allow Rao’s body to enter the party headquarters. His cortege had to wait on the pavement outside the gate before being turned away. He was denied a cremation alongside other prime ministers in Delhi. His son had to perform his last rites in Hyderabad.

Even on Sunday, June 2020, as Rao entered his centenary year, there was no personal tribute from Sonia and Rahul Gandhi or Priyanka Gandhi Vadra till late in the afternoon. There was just a perfunctory message from the party’s Twitter handle.

This, when Telangana’s non-Congress TRS government has started Rao’s birth centenary celebrations across the state, staking claim on a large slice of the Congress vote base in the state.

Most importantly, Narendra Modi spent a considerable amount of time on his radio show Mann Ki Baat on Sunday praising Rao, dwelling on his humble background and contribution. This coincides with BJP supporters on social media raising the pitch over Bharat Ratna for PV Narasimha Rao in his centenary year, overtly and tacitly seeking to underline the Congress’s pusillanimity.

Both Modi’s BJP and TRS in Telangana are on the verge of snatching Rao’s legacy from the Congress. There is nothing new to this. The Congress, due to its singular devotion to the Nehru-Gandhi family and neglect of other icons, has lost in the popular imagination the likes of Sardar Patel, Subhas Chandra Bose and Lal Bahadur Shastri. Losing the architect of liberalisation and modern India would just be another badge of dishonour.

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