Congress suddenly remembers PV Narasimha Rao, but fails to join the dots
The former PM's centenary celebrations should be an occasion to reflect on Congress' blind supplication to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty rather than an empty exercise in symbolism
On Friday, former prime minister Manmohan Singh paid a handsome tribute to another former prime minister PV Narasimha Rao, who headed the Union government when the former was the finance minister.
The occasion was incidentally the 29th anniversary of Singh’s epoch-making budget of 1991, which unspooled a slew of reforms that ultimately transformed the Indian economy on the way to making it a powerhouse. Singh described Rao as the ‘father of economic reforms’, whilst inaugurating yearlong celebrations commemorating Rao’s birth centenary, which will culminate on 28 June 2021.
— Congress (@INCIndia) July 24, 2020
Several preliminary points need to be made. First, consonant with the political culture that pervades the Congress, Singh also paid a tribute to a Gandhi. "Economic reforms were preceded by a push in that direction when Rajiv Gandhi was Prime Minister," he said.
That may not be in dispute, but the fact that Singh found it necessary to make the point while celebrating Rao is significant.
Second, what Singh said is hardly news. The politically and historically literate are only too aware that Rao picked Singh as finance minister, gave him the mandate for economic reforms and his unstinting political backing despite leading a minority government, which he made sure went the distance. All the way from 1991 to 1996.
Whatever initial impetus Rajiv may have provided, the decision to embark upon groundbreaking economic reforms of the scale undertaken was practically unimaginable, even if forced by an unprecedented crisis of foreign exchange reserves. It needed the utmost political courage and sagacity, not to speak of imagination. Both Rao and Singh provided these ingredients.
The difference in the way the Congress has remembered the legacies of the two men, however, stand in stark contrast. Less than a decade after demitting office after the Congress lost power in 1996, Singh became prime minister, which he remained for two terms. Rao, on the other hand, was almost forgotten. In the quarter of a century or so, since 1996, Rao has not officially been celebrated as the man who pioneered economic reforms. Singh’s tribute is handsome, but much delayed.
It’s not just that Rao was forgotten and ignored after his death in 2004. He was left to fend for himself when in life he was subjected to obloquy after being implicated in a vote-buying case and convicted. It is, of course, no one’s case that corruption should be condoned, but it could have been expected that his party would have given him some support in difficult times.
Of a piece with the quarter of a century of neglect is the fact that the Gandhi family played no great role in kicking off Rao’s centenary celebrations. Whilst Singh did the heavy lifting, former President Pranab Mukherjee, and former ministers P Chidambaram and Jairam Ramesh attended the function. Congress president Sonia Gandhi and her predecessor Rahul Gandhi sent appropriately respectful messages, but did not bother to attend the event.
The question, of course, is: why has the Congress suddenly rediscovered Rao? The possibility that he could be appropriated by the Telangana Rashtra Samithi could have played a role. The Congress leadership may correctly feel that it needs all the symbolic play it can get. Rao can provide quite a lot of it at a time when the economy is in focus.
Rao made a seminal contribution to transforming India during a critical period of the country’s history, but that doesn't define Congress. Rather it is the dynastic culture that has come to define the party and, incidentally, brought it to its current critical pass.
The dynastic principle was first introduced into the Congress by Indira Gandhi in the run-up to the Emergency, by promoting her delinquent younger son, Sanjay Gandhi; allowing him to virtually take over the organisation in partnership with her; and by encouraging him to emerge as an extra-constitutional arbiter in the affairs of the government. She followed this up, after Sanjay’s death, by shoehorning an initially reluctant Rajiv into politics.
It was only a familial vacuum, caused by Sonia’s refusal to enter the political arena, which allowed Rao the opportunity to become party chief and the Prime Minister of India. Thereafter, though Singh did become a two-term prime minister, as we all know, the reins of both the party and the government remained in Sonia’s hands. That she acquitted herself reasonably well is another matter.
But Sonia’s successor did anything but acquit himself reasonably well. To be charitable, the best one could say is that Rahul has good intentions. If that is true, it is also true that, in accordance to the old adage, they have paved the road to perdition for the party.
Rahul neither has the nous nor the bottle to rejuvenate a failing organisation, which is best illustrated by his instinct to cut and run whenever problems seem to become insurmountable and responsibilities too onerous.
Obviously, however, to ascribe all of the Congress’ problems to the failings of an individual or a family would be too facile. It is the party as a whole that has failed to transform a dysfunctional system and pernicious culture in an attempt to live up to its responsibilities — and in the current circumstances, the Congress, as the only nationwide opposition party, has a whole lot of responsibilities. The democratic system in general terms cannot prosper without a viable, indeed vigorous, opposition.
The Congress had a palpable opportunity to break from its dynastic shackles last year when, in the wake of the party’s electoral debacle, Rahul quit the president’s post, repeatedly snubbed attempts made by the leadership to get him to change his mind and announced that his successor would have to come from outside the family.
It took the party leadership two and a half months or so to accept the fact that Rahul was not going to change his mind and finally persuaded Sonia to accept the president’s post in an interim capacity. A year on, she continues to be interim chief. No attempt has been made to elect a president democratically according to absolutely categorical procedures laid down in the party’s constitution.
When the party was without a head, it lost its government in Karnataka. In the current situation of drift, which Sonia cannot stem primarily it appears because of reasons of health, it has lost another government – in Madhya Pradesh. A third is currently in limbo in Rajasthan.
There is really no point in the Congress accusing the BJP of adopting a predatory approach. The political riposte cannot be plaintive, it has to be robust. And it can be robust only if the Congress puts its own house in order.
That cannot be done by waiting for Rahul to return as president at his leisure. A leader must be elected, whomsoever it may be – Rahul, Priyanka, or anybody else. But the new leader must be legitimately elected so that he or she has the mandate to rebuild and reform the party root and branch.
The inauguration of a year of celebrations commemorating Rao’s centenary should be an occasion to reflect on the blind supplication to the dynasty, rather than an empty exercise in symbolism.
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