A tale of two funerals: What the demise of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Narasimha Rao tells us about BJP and Congress

The pictures were beamed across India and beyond. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, his Cabinet colleagues, BJP president Amit Shah, chief ministers of several BJP-ruled states, senior BJP leaders and thousands of party workers were on foot, quietly following the flower-decked gun carriage carrying the mortal remains of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Before the final journey began, Vajpayee’s body, wrapped in the tricolour, was taken to the BJP party office where the prime minister, home minister Rajnath Singh and other senior leaders were present.

The cortege eventually left the BJP headquarters at Deen Dayal Upadhyay Marg and proceeded slowly towards Rashtriya Smriti Sthal. The six-kilometre journey to the city’s north precincts was attended by a sea of mourners on both sides of the street. Stifling heat may have added to the solemnity. It emerged from subsequent media reports that the prime minister’s sudden decision to accompany the hearse over a six-kilometre trek had thrown the security apparatus into a tizzy.

“Never before has any prime minister walked 6 kilometres like this in a public procession. We got very little time to tweak his security plan, although we were equipped to handle VIP security all along the way. We did not have the list of VVIPs who would walk, but we had prepared anyway. However, the prime minister’s decision to walk had an element of surprise,” an officer who was part of the security paraphernalia was quoted as saying by Hindustan Times.

Vajpayee’s last rites were performed in full military honours. A seven-day state mourning was announced. The Indian state had pulled out all stops. Gun salutes and sounds of the bugle rent the air as the three service chiefs paid their last respects, so did ministers and foreign dignitaries. The funeral was attended by former prime minister Manmohan Singh, Congress president Rahul Gandhi and Vajpayee’s fellow traveler Lal Krishna Advani. Modi and president Ram Nath Kovind sat through the rituals.

The prime minister, who had described Vajpayee’s death as a "personal loss" and the departure of a “father figure”, was pictured consoling Namita Bhattacharya and Niharika, Vajpayee’s daughter and granddaughter. On the day of the cremation, Modi penned a blog in Vajpayee’s memory, outlining his contribution to nation-building and illustrious leadership.

The BJP, say media reports, will immerse Vajpayee’s ashes in 100 rivers across India. This is, of course, little more than symbolism. But symbolisms are sometimes important. At 93, Vajpayee passed away after living a full, storied life. As Sadanand Dhume writes in The Times of India, “In 1957, when Vajpayee first entered the Lok Sabha, Jawaharlal Nehru was still prime minister. The last time Vajpayee won a Lok Sabha election, in 2004, was also the year Rahul Gandhi first entered Parliament.”

As an orator, poet, politician, an impeccable parliamentarian for over five decades, as an external affairs minister and the first non-Congress prime minister to finish a full term, Vajpayee leaves behind a nation considerably richer from his experience and achievements. If former prime minister PV Narasimha Rao was the author of the 1991 economic reforms, Vajpayee was his true successor. In some respects, Vajpayee’s contribution was even greater, because unlike Rao, who implemented reforms through stealth, Vajpayee did it through conviction.

Dhume calls him “the only prime minister to seriously attempt to roll back the bloated socialist state from the commanding heights of the economy it had occupied under Nehru and his successors.” Vajpayee richly deserved the tribute accorded to him in death. States pay tributes, erect memorials, tombs of departed leaders or engage in symbolisms because it is the nation’s way of encouraging shared memories and retaining (or reviving) common consciousness.

 A tale of two funerals: What the demise of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Narasimha Rao tells us about BJP and Congress

File images of former prime ministers Atal Bihari Vajpayee and PV Narasimha Rao. PTI/Reuters

“The act of collective commemoration is a formal means of giving recognition to the importance of past events and designating them as worthy of collective remembrance. Symbolic representations of past events are designed to give special recognition to great men and women,” writes Arthur G Neal in his book National Trauma and Collective Memory: Major Events in the American Century. Such mass mourning also builds national identity.

Conversely, a state can also sometimes conspire to erase chapters from its history if the power centres consider those chapters to be politically inconvenient. For instance, China has been called ‘The People’s Republic of Amnesia’ for its effort in rewriting (or even omitting) chunks of own past. Such doctoring takes place when narrative becomes more important than truth and seeks to replace it.

Let’s turn now to another funeral, one that took place nearly 14 years before Vajpayee’s death. The treatment meted out to Narasimha Rao — a former prime minister, a former chief minister and a former Congress president — by his own party (which was in power at the Centre and in the state where he was eventually cremated) remains one of the most shameful chapters in Indian history.

Rao was a stalwart. He was one of India’s best prime ministers. His death should have occasioned national mourning and a tribute matching one of India’s greatest leaders. Instead, he was denied even basic human dignity and in death, endured the final act of humiliation authored by a vengeful party that was desperate to erase his name and legacy.

In Half Lion, a biography of Rao, author Vinay Sitapati, a Princetonian scholar, narrates the events that unfolded following the death of the former prime minister whose body wasn’t allowed to enter the Congress headquarters in Delhi. Sitapati, who had exclusive access to Rao’s personal documents and papers, writes that his family wanted to perform Rao’s last rites in Delhi — his karmabhoomi for decades — but were discouraged by Congress leaders.

“The home minister, Shivraj Patil, suggested to Rao’s youngest son, Prabhakara, that ‘the body should be cremated in Hyderabad’. But the family preferred Delhi. After all, Rao had last been chief minister of Andhra Pradesh more than thirty years ago, and had since worked as Congress general secretary, Union minister, and finally prime minister — all in Delhi. On hearing this, the usually decorous Shivraj Patil snapped, ‘No one will come.’

Kashmiri Congressman Ghulam Nabi Azad, another aide of party president Sonia Gandhi, arrived. He too requested the family to move the body to Hyderabad,” writes Sitapati in Half Lion: How PV Narasimha Rao transformed India (Penguin Random House publications, Chapter 1, Half-Burnt Body).

When Rao’s body reached 24 Akbar Road, the Congress headquarters, the entrance gate looked “tightly shut”. The Harvard educated Sitapati, who is now a professor in Ashoka University, writes in the biography that though the gate was opened some years earlier for departed Congress leader Madhavrao Scindia’s mortal remains, no such courtesy was extended to Rao.

“A friend of Rao’s asked a senior Congresswoman to let the body in. ‘The gate does not open,’ she replied. ‘This was untrue,’ the friend remembers. ‘When Madhavrao Scindia died [some years earlier] the gate was opened for him.’ Manmohan Singh now lives in a guarded bungalow a few minutes from Akbar Road. When asked why Rao’s body wasn’t allowed into the Congress headquarters, he replies that he was present, but has no knowledge of this. Another Congressman was more forthcoming. "We were expecting the gate to be opened . . . but no order came. Only one person could give that order," he said.

He added, "She did not give it.”

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who was the finance minister in Rao’s Cabinet and had ushered in radical reforms that transformed India, was reportedly unhappy with the treatment meted out to Rao in death. He was present at the funeral in Hyderabad on the banks of Hussain Sagar Lake. So were his Cabinet colleagues and BJP leader Advani, writes Sitapati. But Sonia Gandhi chose to stay away.

“When the dignitaries left a couple of hours later, the body was still burning. That night, (local) television channels showed visuals of the half-burnt body, skull still visible, lying abandoned. Stray dogs were pulling at the funeral pyre”. (Half Lion, Location 119).

According to a report filed by news agency IANS on 26 December, 2004: “Television pictures of a half-burnt body of former Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao stirred into action his family and government officials who rushed to the funeral site and revived the funeral pyre around midnight. The shocking pictures of Rao’s half-burnt bones, skull and other parts of the body were beamed on Telugu television channels around 11 pm Saturday. Quoting eyewitnesses, the TV reports highlighted how the authorities had shown disrespect to a former prime minister by not arranging enough firewood for his funeral.”

The state government (run by Congress chief minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy) was apparently unhappy with the TV channels for beaming pictures that “disrespected the great man”.

It must be remembered that while Rao despite being a former prime minister was denied a final resting place in Delhi, Sanjay Gandhi, who never held a public office, was laid to rest in Delhi next to Shanti Van, the samadhi of Jawaharlal Nehru.

As MD Nalapat wrote in Rediff in 2004, “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.”

Or perhaps the reasons are not so obscure. Rao’s shabby treatment largely owed to the fact that he refused to let himself be reduced to the status of a Nehru-Gandhi loyalist — and thus violate the iron law of the Congress.

In the eyes of the Gandhi family, Rao was perhaps a greater threat than even Vajpayee and Advani’s BJP. In the wily Brahmin leader, the Gandhi family detected a rival power centre that could diminish their centrality to the party and its fortunes. Rao’s refusal to serve as a seat-warmer to the next generation of Gandhis was a cardinal sin. On Congress’s betrayal of Rao, Sitapati told Economic Times in an interview that “Rao realised that he did not have to report to Sonia and from 1993 he stopped visiting her regularly, which she resented.”

Equally important, however, is the fact that Rao was not a mass leader with no political constituency of his own. On the contrary, vilification of Rao was necessary to atone Congress of the sins of the demolition of the Babri Masjid. In the party’s disgraceful behavior towards Rao and humiliation in death is an unwritten subtext that Congress ‘punished’ Rao for his failure to safeguard the Babri Masjid and jeopardise the party’s long-nurtured Muslim vote bank.

An article published in the February 2005 edition of The Milli Gazette states: “A learned man with so many qualities was lost in ignominy because of the demolition of Babri Masjid. His role in Babri Masjid’s demolition demeaned him in the eyes of secular-minded people of the country. When the Babri Masjid was being demolished, Narasimha Rao with all powers at his disposal, remained a silent spectator. But nature made him a spectacle for the whole world to see the humiliating end of the latter-day Chanakya.”

“Rao is to India what founding fathers Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson are to the United States; Friedrich List to Germany; Hayato Ikeda to Japan; Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Keng Swee and Albert Winsemius to Singapore; and Deng Xiaoping to China,” wrote Sunil Dhavala in Asia Times.

The London-based Economist laments that “Rao had committed the sin of being insufficiently deferential to the Gandhi dynasty while in power. He spent his final years as a pariah. His name was scrubbed from the Congress Party’s lore, and credit for his achievements was given to Manmohan Singh and Rajiv Gandhi.”

The tale of the two funerals gives us great insights into the two national parties’ approach to power. These lessons will no longer remain forgotten, despite the best efforts of Durbari historians and their media brethren.

Updated Date: Aug 20, 2018 20:12:37 IST