Monday 27 December 2004

MDN: Narasimha Rao's final humiliation (Rediff)

M. D. Nalapat

Appropriately for the capital of a country that has witnessed the death of hope so often, Delhi is a city of tombs. To the many built to encase the remains of numerous emperors of the Mughal era and their successors has been added those from post-1947: Mohandas Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Sanjay Gandhi, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Charan Singh and Jagjivan Ram.

Neither Mohandas Gandhi nor Sanjay Gandhi was ever the holder of any public office, although some may claim that the contribution to Indian history of the second son of Indira Priyadarshini may not entirely be on the same scale as that of the Mahatma. However, Sanjay too was granted the same privilege of a samadhi in New Delhi. 

Both Rajiv Gandhi and Charan Singh died while they were out of office, while Jagjivan Ram -- who never made it to the prime ministership -- was cremated outside of New Delhi, but had his ashes brought back and re-interred in New Delhi

Four of the eight post-1947 tombs have been created to honour members of the Nehru family, whose names are etched on airports, ports, roads, townships, public conveniences and much else in a country that is presumably grateful that such a brood chose to be born in their midst.

As some are aware, Pamulaparthy Venkata Narasimha Rao was not a member of the Nehru family. He was, however, the first prime minister from south of the Vindhyas, lasted a full term in office, and began the transformation of India through the economic reforms initiated by him.

Most would say that Rao's remains had at least the same right to a slice of prime New Delhi land as did Charan Singh's or Sanjay Gandhi's. The newspapers, who are extremely deferential to the actual powers-that-be, have been told and have reported that Rao was cremated in Hyderabad 'as per the wishes of his family members.'

This statement contains the same measure of truth as the comment that the former prime minister was 'regularly consulted on all important matters' by the current Congress president, Sonia Gandhi.

In fact, despite being a former AICC president and a prime minister, Narasimha Rao was not just excluded from the Congress Working Commitee since the current heir to the Nehru dynasty took charge of the party in 1998, he was not even allowed to become one of the numerous 'special invitees', most of whom get selected for their cheerleader skills rather than any other contribution.

Given that former prime ministers Rajiv Gandhi, Charan Singh and the non-prime minister Sanjay Gandhi were given state funerals and a final resting place in what may be termed the National Capital's 'Zone of the Dead,' the reasons why such a privilege was denied to Narasimha Rao are obscure.

They, however, are depressingly in line with a pattern that dogged Rao since 1992, when he refused to accept that he was not a public servant, but a Nehru Family retainer. In what follows, an account is given of the circumstances behind the final humiliation of Pamulaparthy Venkata Narasimha Rao.

A short while before he got hospitalised, Narasimha Rao -- whose antennae were always active in picking up signals, especially from the many former and current officials who were admirers of his policies -- was informed of a plan by senior politicians in his own party to implicate him and another former prime minister, Chandra Shekhar, in the assasination of Rajiv Gandhi.

For eight years, Rao had been the only former prime minister to have endured the torture of a series of cases filed against him. These had been masterminded -- and the legwork for them funded -- by the very same individuals who, he was now credibly told, were plotting to implicate him in one of the most heinous crimes of the century. The motive presented for Chandra Shekhar would be revenge -- Rajiv made his life a misery and finally made it impossible for him to remain dependent on Congress support with dignity. That for Narasimha Rao would be the job that he stepped into after the 1991 Lok Sabha election.

To those scripting such Stalin-style show trials, it did not matter that Narasimha Rao had himself asked Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 for permission to retire, and was looking forward during and after the election that year only to writing and to music, and to the company of friends. Or that Rao was the sort of individual who was incapable of violence or vengeance, even against those who were his enemies, which was why -- for example -- the CBI permitted Ottavio Quatrocchi to leave the country.

In Narasimha Rao, forbearance grew to the level of a vice. It was as absurd to imagine him plotting to see Rajiv Gandhi dead as it was to believe that Rajinder Kumar Dhawan planned the demise of the only person he worshipped, Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi.

However, to the Stalinist scriptwriters within the Congress party who hated Rao for his perceived lese majeste, truth and logic were never allowed to remain in the way of a slur.

Shortly before he fell so ill that he had to be taken to hospital for the first time before the final crisis, Narasimha Rao told the writer that it had been a very ugly past few years, thanks to the constant threat of imprisonment hanging over his head. He saw these legal entanglements as a way of paralysing him, removing his capacity to emerge as a player once again, and said that because of their fear of what he could do -- whether justified or not -- they would keep immobilising him through more such stratagems.

PV was calm, he was cynical in his humorous way, but far from resigned. The old fox, whom his father had hoped would become the patwari of his village, felt he had another innings left at the crease, one in which he would once again score a double century. Indeed, he had begun the process of re-entry into active politics by giving me a lengthy interview during the 2004 Lok Sabha election on just why it was wrong to place the destruction of the Babri Masjid at his door, that was carried across a page by The Asian Age.

This was to be followed up by another interview, in which he would explain the conditions in which he and an individual he loved and respected, Manmohan Singh, rescued the Indian economy from collapse, in the process setting it almost free. I would remind him off and on about this second interview, till almost the final days.

Was it the knowledge that yet another conspiracy against him was on the way towards execution that pushed his body beyond the borderline of viable capability? For years, Narasimha Rao had been tended by Sreenath Reddy, one of the finest heart specialists in the world, the son of a close friend -- Raghunatha Reddy -- who was himself as idealistic as his boy. Ever watchful, this surrogate son had monitored PV's health and made sure that the body worked well enough to keep that superb mind working at Concorde speed.

What goes on in the human mind, what short-circuit in the synapses causes a sudden collapse, is impossible to tell. Perhaps it was not this terrible information that pushed him across the red line. Perhaps it was something else. Perhaps it was nothing except perhaps a sudden onset of the common cold.

Even in hospital, even in his final days, PV exuded confidence. The doctors -- and they included many who had grown to love PV the man, if not P V Narasimha Rao the prime minister -- were grim-faced, as were the others clustered outside his room in the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. Not so PV.

Strangely, his physical collapse had led to a toughening of his will. The voice was low, one did not have the will to respond and thus force him to expend energy by replying to the reply, but PV was determined to keep on talking about what would be.

This time, he would not make the mistake of not reacting to the torment, he would resist his inbuilt aversion towards his friends fighting back on his behalf and allow them to. There had been something aloof and patrician about the man from Vangara village, that made any effort at self-defense seem a contemptible display of weakness. But he was aloof no more. The eyes were tired but fierce, the voice was often unable to reach the level of becoming audible, but there was a hardening in the timbre that had not always been present during the years in office.

But this fresh dawn never took place. Sometime after noon on December 23, 13 days after he had been brought to the hospital early in the morning following a cardiac incident, PV decided to call it quits. It was more than an hour before the doctors finally did.

Strangely -- or perhaps entirely expectedly -- despite a special Union Cabinet meeting at 3 pm on the subject of his funeral, at his 9 Motilal Nehru Marg home there were no arrangements made to receive the body and place it on a platform, nor flowers, nor any laying out of carpets by the administration for the mourning crowds to sit down on, nor even a shamiana on the lawns.

Finally, Kishore, a friend of PV's, made arrangements for both. The shamiana could get erected only by 8.15 pm. Carpets and flowers too were provided by family and friends and not by what seemed to be a totally bankrupt Government of India. As if to atone for his visible helplessness, the prime minister, Sardar Manmohan Singh, looked visibly moved as he quietly remained by the side of the body, which had been brought in from the hospital a little before 5 pm. As a gesture of supreme graciousness, Sonia Gandhi turned up and even stayed for a few minutes.

While some of those present then may be made to deny this later, the fact is that the family members -- as well as the crowd of mourners -- would have been happy to see the father of economic reform and the first prime minister from the south in the history of Free India be given the same honours as Sanjay Gandhi and Charan Singh, a State funeral in New Delhi and an appropriate memorial. Home Minister Shivraj Patil was clearly the emissary of some Unseen Power, for he came several times to the Rao home from some other place where he had apparently gone for consultations, to insist in his own courteous way on a funeral in Hyderabad.

It was clear to observers that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was not being consulted on this matter, there was not even a pretence of that on the part of the emissaries of the Unseen Power. A few such as Ahmed Patel could be observed giving regular updates via cellphone to Somebody about the situation in 9 Motilal Nehru Marg. A very useful man, Ahmed Patel.

It was decided Somewhere that PV's body would be sent back to his home state. Ironically, PV had spent the previous 30 years in New Delhi, as a Cabinet minister, as an AICC general secretary and as prime minister. Even when he had been the prime minister, no member of his family lived with him, they would come on (infrequent) visits.

In his last years to, he lived alone. Thus the attempt to justify a shift to Hyderabad on the grounds that "he was not a Delhi resident" was somewhat of a stretch. Another argument used to justify the move to Hyderabad for the final obsequies was that the Vajpayee Cabinet had passed a resolution against any more samadhis. Again, for a regime that has been talking of 'detoxifying' the country from the misdeeds of the Vajpayee Parivar era, this was somewhat ingenious.

The family behaved with quiet dignity throughout. They said that as their father had been a Congressman, a freedom fighter, a prime minister, they would leave it to the Congress party and the government as to what was to be done.

The only moment of friction came when a high official suggested that if the sentiment was so overwhelming within the circle of those who loved PV that the cremation take place in the national capital, then very well, it would take place, but in the Delhi cantonment, as though PV were some bacillus that the refined gentry living in the Lutyens Zone did not want to see contaminate their environment.

The response to this suggestion on the part of those close to PV was that they would then cremate him at the Nigambodh Ghat, along with the other common men, which after all was all that he seemed to be to the powers-that-be.

It was at this stage that a Heavy Hitter arrived, in the person of Y S Rajshekhar Reddy, chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, who 'cajoled' those close to PV into 'agreeing' that it would be best to cremate him in Hyderabad. Around this time, those who looked like Intelligence Bureau sleuths began nosing around the rooms. It had been known that PV had kept voluminous records, including the draft of a book on the Emergency. It is unlikely that any of this will ever emerge into the daylight, except in a very sanitised way.

The next day, December 24, the body of the former Congress prime minister was brought to the gates of the AICC office at 24, Akbar Road and kept there for 20 minutes, 'to pay homage.' Apparently, the body was so heavy that it would not have been possible to lift what was left of PV from the gun carriage into the Congress headquarters, which would have been the civilised thing to do.

After this final humiliation, P V Narasimha Rao left New Delhi for Hyderabad, this time for good.

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