Interview

‘Politicians were the heroes of 1991’

Sanjaya Baru in New Delhi.

Sanjaya Baru in New Delhi.

In the 25th year of economic reforms in India, former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao’s legacy has come into the spotlight. Sanjaya Baru, who was former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s media advisor and who had tracked the reforms process closely as a journalist, speaks to Nistula Hebbar about his new book 1991: How P.V. Narasimha Rao Made History (Aleph Book Company).

There have been several books on P.V. Narasimha Rao. Is this book part of a campaign to rehabilitate him historically?

In a sense, the rehabilitation of Narasimha Rao has already started, given the fact that Jairam Ramesh, considered close to the current leadership of the Congress, brought out a book that has words of praise for Rao. This suggests that within the Congress there are some who feel that it is time to ‘own up’ Narasimha Rao. The reason for this is that Prime Minister Modi has shocked the Congress party by owning the leaders they had abandoned. He took ownership of Sardar Patel, of Subhas Chandra Bose, so I think the Congress was mindful of the fact that the BJP might own up Narasimha Rao and even Manmohan Singh. In some ways, Mr. Modi’s foreign policy is a continuation of Dr. Manmohan Singh’s, and in some ways it could be that Mr. Modi was repossessing all the non Nehru-Gandhi leaders of the Congress. Vinay Sitapati has written a biography, based on family papers of Rao, and it is an excellent book. My book is just about 1991. I have been observing economists recollecting 1991 as if they were the heroes of 1991. I thought it was necessary to remind economists that it was not them but the politicians — Rao and Chandra Shekhar — who were the heroes. This book is titled How P.V. Narasimha Made History but Chandra Shekhar, had he been allowed, could well have been the hero of this story.

A very interesting bit that you have written about is on the ‘what ifs’ of the 1991 elections. What if Rajiv Gandhi had attempted to form a government in 1990 and not been assassinated during the 1991 elections? What would have been the nature of a Congress government headed by him?

Rajiv Gandhi could have certainly attempted to form a Congress-led coalition government in 1990. That could have been a more stable government than Chandra Shekhar’s and pushed the reforms agenda if one goes by what Jairam Ramesh has written. But there is a question mark on that looking at his record as Prime Minister between 1984 and 1989. The reason a Congress-led coalition didn’t happen in 1990 was because it is entirely possible that Rajiv Gandhi himself wasn’t sure how the Congress party would evolve in that context. Don’t forget, the 1991 elections were a damning indictment of his leadership. Unlike Indira Gandhi, who lost power in 1977 and came back with a majority in 1980, Rajiv Gandhi didn’t gain back a majority. Within the party, a feeling could have gained ground, as was mentioned in that famous article supposedly written by Rao in Mainstream , that he was not the future of the party, just as right now there is a feeling that Rahul Gandhi is perhaps not the future of the party. A coalition would have been a risky proposition and therefore Rajiv Gandhi precipitated the elections and also the economic crisis. That’s my argument.

You also look at 1991 as the year when there was a glimmer of hope of a non-Gandhi leader for the Congress and inner party elections. Why did that fizzle out?

When you read M.L. Fotedar’s autobiography and the sections about Indira Gandhi’s tenure at the helm of government, it suggests that she recognised that there were several potential prime ministerial candidates in the Congress. Fotedar mentions Pranab Mukherjee, Sharad Pawar, and Rao. The problem today is in part due to the untimely deaths of leaders like Madhavrao Scindia and Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, the decision by Sharad Pawar not to fight for space in the party, the decline of provincial strongmen like Digvijaya Singh, and the inability of the younger lot of Congressmen to emerge as national leaders. There is a huge vacuum in the party that no one is in a position to fill, not even Rahul Gandhi. The reason why Sonia Gandhi continues as party president is because there is no one today in the party who can be projected as a potential prime minister.

You have spoken of Rao’s legacy being threefold: economic reforms, foreign policy reset, and the possibility he dangled in front of Congressmen that a non-Nehru-Gandhi could run the party and the government. Which among these is his most lasting legacy?

The essence of the book is to say that each of these three contributions was important. His economic policy and foreign policy work have seen continuity, whichever government has been in power, including the current one. On the political front, a point that is not adequately understood even now is that by calling for party elections in 1992, he showed the way for a revival of the Congress — that it’s only by democratising itself, by allowing new leadership to come up, that this can happen. The assassination of Indira Gandhi and then Rajiv Gandhi in a space of seven years was catastrophic for the Congress. He filled a space and showed the way that it could be done.

Narasimha Rao and successive prime ministers till 2014 managed to achieve quite a bit despite their parties not having a Lok Sabha majority. Does a consensual style help in achieving goals more than a secure majority may, because the latter allows unilateralism?

Prime ministers with full majority have behaved differently from each other. Jawaharlal Nehru was a leader who ruled by consensus while Indira Gandhi was considered more unilateral in her approach. The point I make in the book is that Rao, in fact, revived the Nehruvian style of consensus leadership that used to exist in the Congress earlier. Rajiv Gandhi, who had more than 400 MPs in Lok Sabha, couldn’t do much with them. The several non-Nehru-Gandhi prime ministers from the Congress fold also couldn’t quite grasp that. What Rao showed was the ability to use the Nehruvian style to address his lack of numbers, which is why he survived five years unlike former Prime Ministers Morarji (Desai), V.P. Singh, Deve Gowda, etc. He succeeded because he carried the party with him.

Will the crisis in the Congress force it to go back to a more consensual, what you term Nehruvian style of politics?

I had written a column recently where I said that the only hope for the Congress is for Sonia Gandhi to give a call to all Congressmen to come back and elect Mamata Banerjee as their president. Thanks to that column I was invited to Ms. Banerjee’s swearing-in ceremony which I couldn’t attend. But frankly she is the only Congressperson (current or ex) who has a mass base. Sharad Pawar has wasted his political capital as has Digvijaya Singh in Madhya Pradesh. Jaganmohan Reddy has failed to capture his father’s charisma, and in State after State we see there are no provincial leaders who can step into the leadership vacuum that Rahul Gandhi appears unable to fill.


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