Monday 27 December 2004

Revenge on Rao (UPI)

M.D. Nalapat

MANIPAL, India, Dec. 27 (UPI) -- Appropriately for the capital of India, a country that has witnessed the demise of so many dynasties and empires, Delhi is a city dotted by tombs. To the many built to encase the remains of the numerous emperors of the Mughal era has been added their post-1947 potentates of democracy: Mohandas K. Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Sanjay Gandhi, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Charan Singh and Jagjivan Ram.

While neither Mohandas Gandhi nor Sanjay Gandhi was ever the holder of any public office, some may claim that the contribution to Indian history of the second son of Indira Gandhi may not entirely be on the same scale as that of the Mahatma. However, such niceties were not allowed to stand in the way of Sanjay, too, being granted the same privilege that was given to the Mahatma, a cremation site and memorial, or samadhi in New Delhi.
Both Rajiv Gandhi and Charan Singh -- former prime ministers of India -- died while they were out of public office, while Jagjivan Ram, who never became prime minister, was cremated outside of New Delhi. But his ashes were brought back and re-interred in New Delhi as a mark of respect by the country that he served for four decades.
Four of the eight post-1947 tombs have been created to honor members of the Nehru family, whose names are etched on airports, ports, roads, townships, public conveniences and much else in a country that has rewarded them with power and more in abundance.
Pamulaparthy Venkata Narasimha Rao, who was prime minister from 1991 to 1996, was not a member of the Nehru family. He was, however, the first prime minister from south of the Vindhyas, the first outside the Nehru clan to last a full five-year term in office, and the individual who -- together with his then finance minister, Manmohan Singh -- began the transformation of India through economic reform
Most would say that Rao after death had at least the same right to a slice of prime New Delhi land as did Charan Singh or Sanjay Gandhi.
The English-language newspapers in India are extremely deferential to the powers-that-be after what happened to publishers Ashok Jain and Ranjan Raheja, who were slapped with criminal charges after their editors grew too frisky. They have been told and have reported that Narasimha Rao was cremated in Hyderabad in deference to the wishes of his family.
This statement contains the same measure of economy of truth as Sonia Gandhi's comment that the former prime minister was "regularly consulted on all important matters" by her. In actual fact, despite being a former Congress Party president and later a Congress prime minister, Narasimha Rao was excluded by Sonia Gandhi from the Congress Working Committee after the current heir to the Nehru dynasty took charge of the party in 1998, and was not even made 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 a 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 VVIP Dead," the reasons why such a routine privilege was denied to Narasimha Rao are obscure. They are, however, depressingly in line with a pattern that dogged Rao after 1992, when after being anointed the prime minister of India, he refused to act as though he were not a public servant, but a Nehru family retainer. For that crime, Sonia Gandhi treated him as an outsider, even after his death on Dec. 23, 2004, in a New Delhi hospital
Days before he was hospitalized on Dec. 10, Narasimha Rao was informed of a plan by senior politicians in his own party to implicate him and another former prime minister, Chandra Shekhar, in the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. For eight years, Rao had been the only former prime minister to endure the torture of a series of criminal cases filed against him. These had been masterminded -- and the legwork for them funded -- by the very same individuals in the Congress Party (not coincidentally, all of whom were close to Sonia Gandhi) 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 brief life as prime minister of India a misery and finally made it impossible for him to remain in office, by putting conditions on Congress support that would have caused the aged "Young Turk" his prized dignity. The alleged motive for Narasimha Rao to take out Rajiv Gandhi would be the job that he stepped into after the 1991 Lok Sabha elections, because of Rajiv's assassination.
To those scripting this future Stalin-style show trial, it did not matter that Narasimha Rao had himself insisted in 1991 that Rajiv Gandhi gave him permission to retire, and was looking forward during and after the polls of that year to abandoning politics for writing, music and 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.
In Narasimha Rao, forbearance grew to the level of a vice. It was absurd to imagine him plotting to see Rajiv Gandhi dead.
However, to the scriptwriters within the Congress Party who hated Rao for his perceived lese-majesty, truth and logic nothing would be allowed to remain in the way of a show trial that would demolish the reputation of Narasimha Rao for good.
A month before his death, Narasimha Rao told this writer that it had indeed been a very "ugly" past few years, thanks to the constant threat of imprisonment hanging over his head as a result of the cases against him that had been instigated by his Congress rivals. He saw these legal entanglements as a way of paralyzing him, designed to remove his capacity to emerge as a player once again, and added that because of their fear of what he could potentially do to counter the near-complete grip of the Nehru dynasty on the Congress Party, "they" would keep immobilizing him through more such stratagems.
Rao was calm, cynical in his humorous way, but far from defeated or cowed. The old fox -- whom his father had at his birth hoped that he would someday become the headman, or patwari of his village -- felt that despite his 83 years, he had in him another round in the political game in which he could emerge as a winner.
Even in hospital, in his final days of life, Rao exuded confidence when his friends visitedhim. Strangely, his physical collapse had led to a toughening of his will. The eyes were tired but glowing fiercely, the voice, though almost unable to reach the level of becoming audible, had a hardening that had never been present during the years in office.
Despite a special Union Cabinet meeting on the subject of Rao's funeral, those who rushed to his home after getting the news of his death saw to their dismay that there were no arrangements made to receive the body and place it on a platform. There were no flowers or carpets on the floors and on the lawns by the local administration for the mourning crowds to sit down on -- not even a tent, or shamiana, on the lawns. Finally, Kishor, an old friend of Rao's, made arrangements for both.
Narasimha Rao's family members and the crowd of mourners would have expected to see the first prime minister from the south of the country in the history of free India be given at least the same honor in death as Sanjay Gandhi or Charan Singh, a state funeral in New Delhi and an appropriate memorial.
However, Home Minister Shivraj Patil came several times to the Rao residence to insist to the family and to others in his own courteous way that the funeral would have to take place not in New Delhi but in the provincial capital of Hyderabad. It was clear to those witnessing Patil's exchanges with family and friends of Rao that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was not being consulted on the matter of Rao's funeral, there was not even a pretence of that.
It had been decided that Rao's body would be sent back to his home state, Andhra Pradesh. Ironically, Rao had spent the previous 30 years in New Delhi as a Cabinet minister, as a Congress Party 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 only on infrequent visits. To his last weeks, he lived alone in New Delhi. Thus the attempt by Nehru dynasty loyalists to justify a funeral in faraway Hyderabad on the grounds that "Rao was not a Delhi resident" was somewhat inaccurate. Rao's family behaved with quiet dignity throughout.
Also that day, several individuals who looked like Intelligence Bureau officials began furtively nosing around the private rooms of the former premier. It had been no secret that Narasimha Rao had kept voluminous records, including the draft of a book on the 1975-1977 Emergency during which Indira Gandhi suspended democracy in India. It is unlikely that any of these writings and notes and records will ever emerge into daylight, except as fully sanitized.
The next day, Dec. 24, the body of the former Congress prime minister was brought up to the gates of the All-India Congress Committee and kept there for 20 minutes without his bier being taken inside. Apparently, Rao's tiny body was so heavy that it would not have been possible to lift him from the gun carriage into the Congress headquarters. And thus, even in death, Narasimha Rao remained outside the seat of Congress power.
After this final humiliation, Pamulaparthy Venkata Narasimha Rao left New Delhi for Hyderabad, this time for good. History will not ignore him the way the Nehru dynasty did.
-(M.D. Nalapat is a professor of geopolitics at the Manipal Academy of Higher Education.)

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