Narasimha Rao was the second choice after Shankar Dayal Sharma’s staggering refusal to take up the top post
Jawaharlal Nehru and P.V. Narasimha Rao do not have much in common except that both were intellectuals. Nehru’s intellectualism was shaped by Harrow, Cambridge and Lincoln’s Inn; by Bernard Shaw, Russell, the Fabians. He probably dreamt in English. The title of his book, The Discovery of India,is a disarming confession of his need for discovering the land of his birth.
P.V. Narasimha Rao, whose 91st birth anniversary was marked last week, came from a humble home. His intellectual centre was India. Unlike Nehru his knowledge of Sanskrit was profound. His speech on Mahatma Gandhi at Unesco on May 11, 1995 was a masterpiece. One has only to read his address “India’s Cultural Influence on Western Europe since the Age of Romanticism” given at Alpach, Austria on June 19, 1983 to realise that PV was a man of learning, a scholar, a linguist and a thinker of the first order. His roots were deep in the spiritual and religious soil of India. He did not need to Discover India.
An astute man
He used one word where two might do. He once told me that some things should be left unsaid. His ataraxy ensured serene calmness. At the same time he was no saint. His private life inclined towards passion and sensuality. Very few were privy to this aspect of his life. He was astute, crafty, patient;also capable of radioactive sarcasm. He smiled without a smile. Nehru had a temper, PV a temperament.
In early 1990, he had decided to retire from politics. He had made all arrangements to go back to Hyderabad.
On May 21, 1991 Rajiv Gandhi was devastatingly cut down in the prime of his life. He had come to Bharatpur, my constituency, to help me in the 1991 election on May 16. He arrived after midnight, accompanied by his close friend Suman Dubey. A nicer and self effacing man one could seldom find. The next day we drove to Agra. That was the last time I saw him. I wrote in an article two days later, “The Country weeps. The World mourns. I feel a terrible emptiness within and there is no drowning this sorrow. At the moment our consolations are few, our torments many. When the tears have dried the anger subsided, the horror diminished, the scar will remain. So will the heart ache.”
For his funeral many world leaders arrived in Delhi — Vice-President Dan Quayle from the United States, Prince Charles from the U.K, Yassir Arafat, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, the King of Bhutan, the Deputy Prime Minister of the USSR, the Foreign Minister of China to name a few.
Before leaving Delhi, most of the VIP’s called on Sonia Gandhi at No.10 Janpath. I was present at many of the meetings. Sonia Gandhi’s world had been shattered. In public, she lost her composure only once. It was no ordinary grief. I distinctly remember Benazir telling Sonia Gandhi and her children that she should keep away from politics and look after her son and daughter after such a tragedy. Sonia Gandhi sat in silent sorrow. Her two children said this was not the time for such matters. Benazir again laboured the point. I then said to her that she had not followed what she was preaching. “You have stepped in the shoes of your father. The Gandhis have a tradition and legacy of serving India. They could not abandon their heritage.” Her response was, “these were seductive words” which avoided reality. This was no occasion to bandy words with her. The meeting ended on a sober note.
After the Kings and Captains had departed, intense political activity became evident. The aspirants included the late Arjun Singh, N.D Tiwari, Sharad Pawar and Madhav Rao Scindia. Sonia Gandhi was aware of this. I told her that the time had come for her to indicate her preference for Congress president. He would naturally become Prime Minister. For so momentous a decision, I suggested she ask P.N. Haksar for advice. She said she would let me know. Meanwhile, she consulted several people, including M.L. Fotedar.
The next day, she asked me to bring P.N. Haksar to No.10 Janpath. Haksar’s advice was to offer the post to Vice-President Shankar Dayal Sharma. He suggested that Aruna Asaf Ali and I should sound out the Vice-President. Aruna Asaf Ali told the Vice-President that she and I had been asked to request him to accept the post of Congress party president. In other words, he would be the Prime Minister. Shankar Dayal Sharma gave us a patient hearing. He then said he was touched and honoured by Soniaji placing so much trust in him. What followed staggered Arunaji and me. The Vice-President continued, “The prime ministership of India is a full time job. My age and health would not let me to do justice to the most important office in the country. Kindly convey to Soniaji the reasons for my inability to take on such an awesome a responsibility”. His answer was wholly unexpected. To turn down the prime ministership of India was something only a man of self-confidence and integrity could do.
On the way back, Arunaji and I hardly exchanged a word, because Shankar Dayalji’s response had overwhelmed us.
We reported to Ms. Gandhi the Vice-President’s decision. The country was without a Prime Minister. Such a hiatus could not be prolonged. Already the media was reporting unseemly and not-so-innocent jockeying for the job. Once again she turned to P.N. Haksar, who advised her to send for P.V. Narasimha Rao. The rest is history.
(Natwar Singh is a former External Affairs Minister.)
In reponse to readers' queries, we are providing a link to P V Naraminha Rao's 1995 lecture 'Gandhi in the Global Village'