Narasimha Rao’s end was swift, the fall steep. He was encircled by legal cases almost immediately after he resigned as prime minister in May 1996. On 21 September, a judge summoned Rao as an accused in a corruption case filed by a London-based pickle maker, Lakhubhai Pathak. There was every chance that the former prime minister (who was still party president) would be arrested. There were predictable puns about pickles, and newspapers termed it “The beginning of the end for Rao’. He decided to resign as Congress president.
His astrologer, NK Sharma, told him that once he stepped down, ‘all these people who are worshipping you, they will start kicking you’. Sharma says that Rao replied, ‘If tomorrow I am arrested, I don’t want the [newspaper] headline to read “Congress president goes to jail”.’
It took almost no time for the astrologer’s prediction to come true. When Rao organised a tea party for his Congressmen on 25 September 1996, soon after his resignation as party chief, it had to be cancelled because not a single invitee was willing to attend. Years later, unwell and ignored, Rao was visited by Congress leader Salman Khurshid and his wife. ‘You know, Salman,’ Rao said with a pause, ‘I am accused of not taking a decision . . . the only decision I took in a hurry was resigning as Congress president.Look what has happened.’
Apart from Lakhubhai Pathak’s allegations, Rao was accused of forgery in the St Kitts case, of corruption by stockbroker Harshad Mehta, and of conspiring to bribe MPs from the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) to vote in his favour in Parliament. He was eventually convicted in one of those cases — the JMM affair — before being acquitted by a higher court. His son Prabhakara was arrested in connection with allegations of irregularity concerning the purchase of urea, before investigating agencies found no evidence against Prabhakara and the charges were dropped. The legal bills mounted, and in urgent need of 23 lakh rupees to pay his lawyers, the former Prime Minister considered selling his house in Hyderabad.
Characteristically, Narasimha Rao turned even this court trauma into a learning experience, making detailed notes on the legal documents, originals of which are still mountain-stacked in his private archives. His lawyer, RK Anand, remembered, ‘Rao himself used to study law books. His knowledge was immense.’ Meanwhile Congressmen had moved on, turning once again to the Nehru-Gandhis to rescue them from political irrelevance. When Sonia Gandhi took over the party in 1998, she was determined to erase Rao from the party pantheon. ‘That man is not a Congressman,’ Rahul Gandhi told a senior Congress leader, ‘because of him we have lost UP forever.’ Rao’s son Rajeshwara complains, ‘I have been waiting for a full decade for a meeting [with Sonia Gandhi]. She refuses.
‘He was a sad man. Only a few Congressmen visited him,’ Swamy remembers. ‘Manmohan Singh, Pranab Mukherjee and [MS] Bitta were some of the few.’ Exile was not new for Narasimha Rao.
Excerpted from 'Half-Lion: How PV Narasimha Rao transformed India' with permission of Penguin Books India.