He passed away on July 12, 1999.
FOR a politician in his seventies who had become the Prime Minister by sheer accident to have lasted a crises-ridden five-year term was a remarkable achievement. Consider the circumstances in which Pamulaparti Venkata Narasimha Rao came to the post.
Congress President Rajiv Gandhi had not even given him a ticket for the Lok Sabha elections of 1991, and when the Sriperumbudur tragedy occurred in the midst of the elections, Rao was at Nagpur, on way to his village in Andhra Pradesh. Most of his belongings had already gone to Warangal, crates full of books. He had bid goodbye to Delhi, and to politics. He would just read, write and take life easy. Kamal Nath was in his constituency in Chhindwara when he got the news of Rajiv’s death and he had to rush to Nagpur to persuade Rao to return to Delhi. And so a quirk of destiny took Rao back to Delhi. Prime Ministership was still nowhere in question.
The odds were too many. In a knee-jerk reaction, the party which had become bonded to the Gandhis unanimously declared Rajiv’s widow as its president. But for Sonia Gandhi’s refusal to accept the post, politics would have taken a very different course. Luckily for the party, yet another sympathy wave had improved its performance in the post-Rajiv polling, and put the Congress on top of the electoral tally, though far behind a majority.
At least half a dozen political veterans were aspiring to be the party chief. Narain Dutt Tiwari was considered out of reckoning because he had lost in Nainital, and Arjun Singh still did not have the chutzpah to go for the kill, but the Maratha chieftain Sharad Pawar had promptly thrown down the gauntlet, and if Sonia Gandhi did not have the influence and say in the choice of leader, would have stayed in the race. Rajiv’s well-known reservations against Pawar had much to do with Sonia opting for Narasimha Rao, a man with a long record of loyalty to the Gandhis. He was old and frail and had recently had a heart operation. Besides, he had no grassroots support; he had depended on Sharad Pawar for a safe pass to the Lok Sabha in 1989, from Ramtek. Just the sort of party leader, they thought, who would be dependent on Sonia Gandhi.
It was to Sonia Gandhi that he owed his position, which had the flip side to it: right from the first day, he fell under the shadows of 10 Janpath, a factor which cramped him throughout his term. Rao had started out with the dice heavily loaded against him. One national magazine had called him “The Meek Inheritor.” He himself was all too aware of his precarious position. At his first official press conference, a full year after he became the Prime Minister, Rao said, “India is destined to walk on the razor’s edge forever and ever.” One felt he was talking about his own personal predicament as well. He remained on the the razor’s edge all through the five years.
In his first year, Rao was more like a trapeze artist in a circus, often swinging down to the middle of the canopy not knowing whether he would fall or be given a hand by one of the men coming in from the other sides, whether from the Left or the Right he often did not know. In the beginning, it was more the Right which gave him a hand: the Bharatiya Janata Party which was out to make the best of Rao’s minority — and almost until after the Babri Masjid was torn down, he looked quite cozy not just with the BJP but with all the sants and mahatmas of the Sangh Parivar. He would even sit down on his office floor with them, and charm them with his great devotion for Lord Ram. Rao had often been accused of having the RSS germ inside him, and some thought the charge was only reinforced when he ‘slept through’ that cataclysmic afternoon of December 6, 1992, or in any case moved not a little finger all the time that the Babri Masjid, which had become the symbol of Indian secularism, was being turned into rubble. Rao may have had his good reason for his inaction; perhaps he thought it was the only way he could survive, and save the nation from bloodshed, but he went down in the eyes of people who valued secularism. What was more he had given his rivals a stick to beat him with, never mind how committed to secularism they themselves were.
After he became Prime Minister, Rao told some of his confidants that he did not expect to last for more than a couple of years at the outside. In just about a year came a sea-change. His basic problem had been to establish himself as the leader of the Congress and with Rajiv Gandhi’s widow casting a long shadow on the power play taking place. During the time of the Gandhis, the party had been transformed from a grassroots organisation to one owing loyalty to a supreme leader.
Rao had disregarded his colleagues’ warnings and held party elections after a gap of nearly 20 years. After the elections, however, he took bizarre twists and turns. Two reasons could be ascribed for it: one, he felt threatened by the alternative power centres being built up around Arjun Singh and Sharad Pawar; and two, he realised that the party was not ready to practise real democracy.
His pose and demeanour may have made him look stupid at times, but make no mistake about it, he was anything but that. He had all the qualities of a great survivor. Most of all the thick skin of an aged rhinoceros. When he came to office, he looked such a push-over, but just recall how he lulled all his rowdy rivals into slumber with his consensus-lullaby, how adroitly he transformed his tenuous minority into a majority. And somewhere along the line he developed a great taste for the job, so much so that even the humiliation of being accused by a broker of having taken a crore from him would not provoke him into saying a word in protest. No Prime Minister had ever had to live through such humiliation and calumny.
IN his worst moment, he would only recite to you some lines from the Upanishad. Rao was certainly one of the most erudite Prime Ministers that the country had had. He knew about ten Indian and at least four foreign languages, and though he was the first Prime Minister from the South, he was far more proficient in Hindi than most others. He was also the first Prime Minister to be directly accused of taking bribes. A ring of scams closed on him as he went along. One of the first to surface was the “sonscam”: the doings of his son, PV Prabhakar Rao. The phenomenal spurt in the fortunes of this 40-year-old son of the Prime Minister had created waves in political and business circles. In 1990, the net worth of his three financial companies was worth Rs 4,000, in 1991 it was just under a crore, and in 1992 the company invested Rs 1.27 crore in the Rs l75-crore Goldstar Alloy and Steel Ltd., and was set to invest Rs 14 crore in another megaproject, the Rs 246-crore Srikakulam Paper Mills. Prabhakar Rao was the promoter of both the projects. Where was all the money coming from. “One does not need money to start in industry,” Prabhakar Rao had said blandly. “If one has credibility, one can get the right finances.” He had a lot of credibility: he was the son of the Prime Minister. The sharers in the new industrial empire were some of the members of the sprawling Rao family — sons, nephews, son-in- law, and their underlings.
Less than half way down his term, his party was getting increasingly panicky, but Rao himself was cool as cucumber. He knew his rivals were pining to push him out, he knew that some who were acting like his great defenders and apologists had at least half an eye on his job. Rao knew them all like the palm of his hand. He knew most of them had feet of clay, and he played them deftly, one against the other. At one point, some of the bigwigs of the party went to 7 Race Course Road, determined to give the Prime Minister a shock. They had decided to tell Rao that it was high time he shed his burden that he should give up the party presidentship and concentrate on governing the country. Rao sat slouched in his sofa. He looked them up and down and said, “Ah! so you have come to ask me to quit?” They were all stunned, their temporarily bolstered collective spine gave way all at once. They mumbled some inanities, and settled down to sip some coffee.
AFTER what had seemed to everyone as the demise of the Nehru- Gandhi dynasty, Rao was supposed to have brought democracy back to the Congress. The process seemed to have started at Tirupati in April 1992, but after a time it got stalled, and Rao started becoming another supremo. “We asked them to elect. But the result was that they did not want elections and they passed resolutions authorising me to nominate presidents…” In a party like that, which leader would not want to become the supremo?
Part of Narasimha Rao’s strength clearly lay in his deep understanding of the contradictions of Indian politics and his ability to exploit them to his advantage. He knew the ins and outs of all the political players on the stage, their strengths and weaknesses. In hindsight, one could see why he had become so indispensable to Indira Gandhi and later her son, despite the fact that neither was inclined to trust him beyond a point. Rao had his uses as an adroit player of political chess, and his advice was often sought on crucial matters by both the Gandhis. As in so many of the fairy tales, Rao seemed to know which limb of which parrot he could twist to make a particular politician cry out for life. Of course he did not always have to make them cry. So well had he fine-tuned his relations with most of the gentlemen of the Opposition that while they were willing to wound, they often restrained themselves from striking.
But strong as Rao had seemed to be, the more perceptive ones could see the possibility of a sudden implosion of the power bag that he held. The entire country seemed to be in a state of suspended animation. Everything had been put on hold: elections in Kashmir, the bill to replace TADA, the Patents Bill. Everything shelved. Survival was all. “Do nothing that might rock the boat.” That was Narasimha Rao’s motto. When Parliament sessions ended, many wondered why at all it had sat. Nothing happened except noise and more noise.
But if the Prime Minister’s pose and demeanour make him look stupid at times, he is anything but that. Political scientist Asish Nandy made a memorable observation in The Economist, “Rao has the quality which is essential for political survival in South Asia: to look stupider than you actually are.” How badly the Congress rebels miscalculated the response of Narasimha Rao! When Arjun Singh took on the Prime Minister he perhaps thought Rao would stay true to his known disposition and do nothing to counter the attack. He and his supporters were certainly not prepared for the precipitate action that the Congress President took. Rao suddenly acted against his grain and left his enemies bewildered.
An even bigger miscalculation on the part of the rebels was their assumption that after the reverses in the Assembly elections, Sonia Gandhi would come out openly into politics and take over the party presidentship. What they obviously failed to see was that Mrs Gandhi’s interests did not quite coincide with theirs. At least as long as the party was in power. Why would she have wanted to reduce herself from being the party’s unquestioned ‘godmother’ to a leader of just a rump? Why would she open herself to attacks from all sides?
Yet another vital point which the rebels forgot was the essential nature of Congressmen. What kept most of the flock together was that Rao was still very much in control of the instruments of power and could still scatter some crumbs from his table. What frightened even those who were in sympathy with the rebels was that revolt would not get them anywhere. When Arjun Singh revolted, he failed to pull even his own bailiwick to his side, not to speak of other states.
Knives were out in his party, but Rao had struck the sweetest of relations with the powerful non-Congress bosses in the states. He had strong subterranean links with the CPM patriarch, Jyoti Basu, and if he could dance two steps left with Basu, he could swing two steps right with Atal Behari Vajpayee with even greater ease. And when the UP strong man, Mulayam Singh Yadav came calling, as he often did, the gates of 7 Race Course Road swung open like the rocks to Ali Baba’s khul ja simsim. For the new Krishna avatar of Bihar, Laloo Prasad Yadav, it was verily the unrolling of the red carpet. Laloo often arrived with his entire brood, his coy wife in tow, and what convivial get- togethers they all had.
Rao had even struck the right chord in NT Rama Rao, more so in his wife, Lakshmi Parvathi. Jayalalitha was proving a bit of a pain in the neck, but Rao had let loose some vicious hounds after her and was certain that she would decide that discretion was the better part of valour.
With the Congress prospects in the Assembly elections in December 1994 started looking gloomy, Rao decided midway through the campaign to let it be known that in case of a loss for the party, the blame would not be his. The Congress had launched the campaign for Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka stating in no uncertain terms that the verdict would be a ‘referendum’ on the economic reforms package of the Rao government. But as soon as bad news started coming from the campaign trail, Rao changed his tune. Whoever said Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka would be a referendum on the economic reforms? These were local elections and would be decided on local issues.
Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, the two states which occupy the most seats in the Lok Sabha, have consistently voted the same party on ‘local’ and ‘national’ issues. Midway through the campaign in the state, Congressmen realised that some of the anti-Laloo Prasad Yadav sentiments could help to raise their numbers in the assembly. That was when Bihar Congressmen began lobbying to keep the Prime Minister Rao out of the campaign. Candidates from one district, which has a large section of Muslims, were almost desperate to see to it that the Prime Minister did not venture anywhere near: he would scare away the Muslim voters. In another district, Congressmen were again jubilant when they learnt Rao would not be campaigning there.
Came the assembly election results from Maharashtra and Gujarat: saffron tides had swept the west coast. The Congress had lost Bombay’s Mantralaya for the first time since independence. Gandhinagar became something more than just Lal Krishna Advani’s Lok Sabha seat: it became the seat of another government captured by the BJP. Narasimha Rao must have rued the passing away of Chimanbhai Patel, the man who would be Chief Minister no matter what party was voted to power in Gujarat. Maharashtra was more terrible a loss, but privately Rao must have chuckled at the snub to Sharad Pawar. The man with the broadest gin, however, was Advani. Where else could they go from there but Delhi? No more alliances needed for the BJP apart from the one with the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, he euphorically announced—We are going it alone and we are going to Delhi; Narasimha Rao, here we come!
Narasimha Rao’s Congress was shaking but it had to get more jolts. With all the starry-eyed reports that the Congress party and its votaries in the media had made about the Bihar outcome, and despite all the road blocks put by Chief Election Commissioner TN Seshan, Laloo Prasad Yadav had ridden home with a victory bigger than he had ever won or dreamt of. The most pessimistic in the Congress had been hoping they would improve their Assembly tally of 60. The party was reduced to nearly a third that number. Laloo Yadav summoned drummers to his west Patna bungalow to celebrate what he called the ‘deafening beat — the death-knell of the Congress’.
ARJUN Singh took the plunge but with a lifebuoy. Being a pragmatic politician, he did not want to sink. He had sent a missive to Jitendra Prasada that there was “no clear cut line of action” to fight communalism and what prevailed was vagueness, ambiguity and passivity. And yet he carefully interspersed his attack with praise for Narasimha Rao: “The firm, timely and imaginative initiative of the Prime Miniser at Ayodhya has diffused tensions…” His attempt was clearly to position himself as the “natural leader” of the party in the event of something going amiss. But there was more to it than that. A recurrent note of the letters he wrote in the Nehruvian style was what many saw as the north-south divide.
The underlying message that was sought to be conveyed to the rank and file of the party, particularly in the north, was that the Prime Minister and Congress President was either not alive to the challenge that the party was facing in the northern states or he was deliberately ignoring it.
In the three crucial states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, which together accounted for 179 of the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha, there had been a toboggan slide for the party — from the high of 171 in 1984 to a low of 33 in the present House. As against this, the four southern states — Andhra Pradesh, Karnatka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu — with 129 seats, accounted for 88 Congress MPs.
The whispers that came from obvious quarters in the Congress had it that Rao was simply not interested in the revival of the party in the North, for if that were to happen his own leadership could be threatened. Why would he want to preside over the liquidation of his own empire?
Arjun Singh got nearly 3,000 xerox copies of one of his vitriolic letters and sent them off to partymen down the line, with a covering letter in which requested that they send in their comments to him. He was already arrogating to himself the functions of the Congress President, and showing, if only obliquely, that the leadership had failed to respond to the grave crisis facing the country. While the ‘call of duty’ rang out loud and clear, the leadership wallowed in ‘transient expediency’. What was needed was sacrifice and struggle. And so here was Arjun Singh giving the call, “let us in all humility begin the task.”
BUT at the first whiff of attack, Aijun Singh knuckled under. He was at pains to explain that he had no intention to challenge Narasimha Rao. “I must be very clear and candid on this account,” he said in a quickly arranged press interview. “Neither this letter is meant for a confrontation with the Prime Minister nor do I have any intention to confront the Prime Minister, for the very simple reason that all of us considered then that he is the best amongst all others to lead the party and the government. I still continue to believe in this.”
So why did he have to strike brave postures which gave the impression that he was ready to take on the leadership? Did it have something to do with his own personal predicament, the Churhat Lottery Case that hung like a sword over his head? The very suggestion cut him to the quick: “Some people feel that everyone is amenable to browbeating and threats of insinuation. I have seen enough in this life. It makes no difference what anyone wants to do…” Whatever Arjun Singh’s motivations, the issue he had posed was one that even some of his known detractors could not pooh-pooh.
The Prime Minister was getting into deeper waters. There was Ayodhya on the one hand, the securities scam on the other. Just when the Joint Parliamentary Committee set up to probe the securities-stock market scam, other stink bombs exploded. One such was the Big Bull Harshad Mehta’s allegation that he had paid Rs 1 crore to Narasimha Rao. The first instalment of Rs 67 lakh, he told a crowded press conference at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay, he had personally given to the Prime Minister at his Race Course Road residence on November 4, 1991. Rao, just back from a trip to Oman, sat unruffled in the eye of the storm. A cryptic 40-word statement was all that came out later: The PM was shocked, he had not taken the money, but he was not going to say whether he met Harshad Mehta or not. The storm raged on and on, but it made little difference to the ever-pouting Rao. Not even when his partymen started discussing his successor. He made himself steadier on the razor’s edge.
What the critics of Rao forgot was that he truly represented the ethos of his party. He knew the stuff the Congressmen were made of. Even through the worst days of the pay-off crisis, the Prime Minister and his men were sanguine about one thing: that the party would not corner him on the issue of corruption. For who would cast the first stone? If they all combined against Rao and pushed him out, they themselves could face the same music. What if some broker got up in Bombay and announced at a press conference that he had paid a couple of crore to Sharad Pawar? What if some petty chit-fund man in Bhopal got up and gave an account of how he had helped Arjun Singh build his marble place? Corruption may or may not be a global phenomenon as Mrs Indira Gandhi used to say, but it had certainly become an inalienable trait of Congressmen. Narasimha Rao knew he was on pretty safe ground as far as the corruption issue went. He did not even find it necessary to as much as mention the word in his address from the ramparts of the Red Fort. He had another trump card up which he used with telling effect. He sent off his trouble-shooter, K Karunakaran, to Rashtrapati Bhawan, at the height of the Harshad Mehta crisis, and whatever the President may or may not have said to Karunakaran, the word was spread around in the Congress that the alternative to Rao would be mid-term elections.
The collective insecurity of the MPs, more than half of whom would perhaps never see the inside of the next Lok Sabha, did the rest. Hum to doobenge sanam, tumko bhi le doobenge seemed to be Rao’s message — I may well sink, my love, but I’ll take you down with me.
“Let this no-confidence business be over and then we’ll see.” A minor player on the political stage, Karunakaran had suddenly found himself in national focus, and he was clearly revelling in his new role. The Kerala House in New Delhi had become the rendezvous of power-seekers and power-brokers. Their luncheons and teas became hot news, though what really went on behind the scene nobody seemed to know for sure. What were the great guns of the Congress confabulating over idli and dosa? New aspirations had risen in the hearts of Karunakarn and Vijay Bhaskar Reddy. While appearing to play on both sides of the fence, now sympathising with the pro-changers and now confabulating with Prime Minister Rao, Karunakaran was positioning himself for the top job. And in any case why should he work for Arjun Singh or some other aspirant from the north?
Nothing remains constant. More so politics. A week, as they say, is a long time in politics, and the scene next week could be very different. But at that point, the Prime Minister seemed to have further tightened his grip on the instruments of power. He could break, but would not bend. Or so was the impression one carried from a visit to No. 7 Race Course Road. It was the Prime Minister’s aides rather than the Prime Minister himself who was losing their sleep over the Sonia factor. Many of them thought Rao was in trouble. Rao himself did not think so. He maintained his poise and equanimity. When Arjun Singh had started his offensive, the party dissidents were pretty certain that at some crucial juncture they would bring the Gandhi family into the fray which in turn would send the Prime Minister scampering for cover.
Congressmen took it for granted that both Arjun Singh and ND Tiwari were being egged on by 10 Janpath. Though the Prime Minister had done his best to show his deference to Sonia Gandhi and called on her frequently, she suspected that he was out to demolish the legacy of the Gandhi family. She believed there was a deliberate attempt to scuttle the probe into her husband’s death. What was more, the fact that the Bofors issue was raised every once in a while by the ministers of the Rao government only reinforced her impression that Rao was out to do her in.
Just before ND Tiwari resigned from the Congress Working Committee, largely in protest against the expulsion of Arjun Singh, he confided to some of his trusted newspersons, albeit obliquely, that he had the ‘blessings’ of Sonia Gandhi. A taciturn lady who usually listened rather than spoke to her visitors, Sonia was said to have told both Tiwari and Arjun Singh that they were senior leaders and could well decide their course of action themselves. Her words had all the ‘seven types of ambiguities’, and even those who were supposedly close to her were puzzled about her intentions. There were old loyalists of the Rajiv court who hovered around her residence and came away with all manner of ‘information’. What they were based on nobody knew. Most visitors were lucky if they could have a few words with the lady’s loyal secretary, Vincent George. If they were in some sort of a delegation, they sometimes got a brief audience with the lady, which indicated that she was keeping her options open for the future. Nothing beyond that. It was mostly the visiting Congressmen supplicating to her: “Soniaji, please save the Congress.” Her response was mostly glacial, at best a wan smile.
RAO’S last year in office was a nightmare for the country. It was a year that one would have to paint with a palette dripping with blood, and a feel for the macabre. How else would you paint the rivulets of blood on the face of Rajan Pillai or the beheaded Hans Christian Ostro or the bits and pieces of flesh that had once been Beant Singh or the blood-soaked bodies strewn on the rail tracks of Firozabad? You would have to know how to paint blazing fires, and fire balls crackling in the oven, for how else would you paint Charar-e-Sharif in flames or the mutilated body of Naina Sahni burning in the tandoor? Or even the political back-stabbings, the gory murders of the innocents in the posh colonies of the country’s capital? How would you paint that bloody moon permanently gored on the forehead of Chandraswami? Blood has to be the primary colour of the 1995 phantasmagoria.
The stench of that year you could not paint. The stench of burning flesh, the stench of corruption, the stench of political deceit and decay. The year had opened with scandals and closed with scandals: the sugar scam, the havala scandal, the telecommunication scam, the Rs.25-lakh cheque scandal. And in between you had a surfeit of political conspiracies and revolts, strange political couplings and miscarriages.
Politically, the year started with the Congress party still reeling under the drubbing in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, and with Prime Minister Narasimha Rao looking like a push-over. In the dying days of 1994, Arjun Singh had finally taken the plunge after a stinging attack on the Prime Minister, and it seemed there was no way Narasimha Rao could last for long. Electoral defeats and revolt in the party had brought back the Sonia enigma to the fore: the will-she-won’t-she syndrome overshadowed the party throughout the year, without any clear answer at the end of it.
The ruling party was in shambles. Routed in polls, demoralised, decadent. But its leader proved he had nine lives. Rao defied all the forecasts of astrologers and sooth-sayers and political pundits. The more the disarray around him the prettier he sat. What the morrow held for him nobody could tell, but 1995, a bloody year though it may have been otherwise, was a great one for the Prime Minister. The hollower his party, the taller rose his cutouts. If the year saw the Prime Minister’s humiliation in his own state, it also saw the sudden fall of the Born Again NTR. It was a pathetic spectacle, almost like a Telugu version of a Greek tragedy, the denouement of an old patriarch so besotted with his new-found lady love that he incurs the wrath of his kith and kin and loses his crown.
DURING the year, the Prime Minister made desperate attempts to refurbish the image of his government and the party, but the more he shuffled his packs, the darker became the image. It took Rao so long to remove three of his scam-tainted ministers that the act hardly earned him much credit. At one point he expanded his cabinet by taking in three former chief ministers, but their antecedents were so dubious that people only wondered what Rao was after. He was in need of hatchetmen, of aides who were adept in the art of buying and selling. Some he picked simply to weaken the ranks of Arjun Singh, some to influence the minorities, some to win over the Dalits. That none of the Muslims he chose for the ministry were capable of getting him any Muslim votes only showed the hopelessness of his future. The Prime Minister’s only source of hope was the continuing disarray in the Opposition. Talks on alliances and Opposition unity were endless, but the more they talked the more they seemed to disagree. But hope was kept alive. Politics, as Biju Patnaik put it, “is a dog’s game. I do not rule out any alliance with anybody.”
Beginning with the murky sugar scam, the year saw the government dragging from one scandal to another, finally ending up with another major scam, which it was bound to carry on to the new year. Towards the end of 1995, politics seemed like a ticking bomb, waiting to explode.
So was Chandraswami. His palatial ashram in south Delhi was alive with arrivals and departures of political cronies. “We shall have to finish that dirty Gujjar,” declared a functionary of the Swami’s trust, the ‘dirty Gujjar’ being the former minister for internal security, Rajesh Pilot, who had put ‘fiendish obstacles’ in the way of Chandra Swamiji Maharaj. Had it not been for Pilot’s ‘mischief, he said, “Swamiji would have been resting in the Beverly Hill palace of Adnan Khashoggi.”
“The real target,” the Swami said, “is the Prime Minister, Narasimharaoji. It is a very deep conspiracy to throw him out. There are political sharks masterminding the conspiracy.” Who? “Ah, there are many. Sharad Pawar, for instance, he is behind Pilot’s move.”
Rajesh Pilot could hardly have hit closer to the Prime Minister. Once he was certain that he was going to be removed from the home ministry, Pilot had struck. Nobody knew of Chandraswami’s close relations with Rao better than the internal security ministry, which had been keeping tabs on the godman’s visits to 7 Race Course Road.
After the notorious criminal, Babloo Srivastava, had revealed Chandraswami’s alleged links with Dawood Ibrahim, Rajesh Pilot had gone to the PM to seek permission to have the godman arrested. Rao was in a quandary. Ever since he became the PM, he had done the best to show that he had distanced himself from the swami. “The law must take its own course,” he had mumbled. But behind the scene, Pilot’s move caused a flutter in the dovecots, and high-ups in the government were amazed that the PM should be making ‘frantic inquiries about the whereabouts of the home secretary, Padmanabhaiah. He was abroad, and was asked to return to India immediately.
What had given a new dimension to l’affaire Chandraswami was Arif Mohammed Khan’s charge that the godman had hired an Israeli mercenary and offered to pay him one million dollars to eliminate Rajiv Gandhi during the 1991 election. Khan was himself in desperate straits following the CBI’s raids on him in connection with the Jain hawala case. Chandraswami’s name had first figured in the evidence of a Punjab politician, Mahant Sewa Dass, who had told the Jain Commission that the godman was the kingpin of the plot hatched in London to kill Rajiv Gandhi. The commission had been informed earlier about a mercenary named Mason being hired in London by some Indians to kill Rajiv Gandhi. But that deal was said to have fallen through because Mason had quoted a figure far beyond the one million dollars budgeted for the ‘job’.
The wise old man that Narasimha Rao was, he could see that too much closeness to the dubious godman would be bad for his image. Right from the beginning he was careful not to be seen anywhere with Chandraswami, and the word was spread that the swami was no longer close to the Prime Minister. The insiders knew better. They even called Chandraswami the Svengali of 7 Race Course Road. The Prime Minister’s last appointment of the day was usually with the ‘godman’, and there were reports that Chandraswami often took industrialists and politicians to the PM’s residence in the morning, before Narasimha Rao began his day. The veil was off when the Prime Minister put Chandraswami openly in charge of winning over the sants and sadhus of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad during the Ayodhya crisis. He also played the most active role, behind the scene, in breaking up the Janata Dal, and luring Ramlakhan Singh Yadav and others away to get the Prime Minister a majority in Parliament.
One man who kept a day-to-day record of Chandraswami’s activities was Rajesh Pilot, though not necessarily for the purpose of putting the godman into trouble. Not unless he had to. Ambitious politicians like to arm themselves for future political battles, and Pilot is an ambitious politician, who even fancied the Prime Minister’s chair. “Make me the Prime Minister and you’ll see what wonders I do,” was Pilot’s favourite dialogue with his friends and admirers.
In 1989, Chandraswami tried hard to placate Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who had disliked him immensely. Swami knew he would have to do something to prove his worth to Rajiv, and what better could he do than expose the politician who was out to finish him? So he brought some ‘sensational’ documents which showed that Vishwanath Pratap Singh’s son, Ajeya, had an illegal bank account in St. Kitts. To prove the authenticity of these damning documents, Chandraswami had taken the help of his friend Narasimha Rao who was then Rajiv’s External Affairs minister. When the documents were being forged in the US, Rao had arrived in New York. He had summoned the Indian consul- general to his room at the UN Plaza Hotel and asked him to attest the documents. Some thought Rao had done all this at the behest of Rajiv Gandhi, but as later inquiries revealed, Rajiv had had nothing to do with the preparation of the forged St. Kitts documents. They were all the joint handiwork of Chandraswamy and Narasimha Rao, the CBI asserted.
The various scams and scandals which Rao got enmeshed in over the years will always remain a blot on his prime ministership, but he would also be remembered for lifting the country’s economy by the scruff to its neck and giving it a new direction. The election in strife-torn Punjab and the restoration of the democratic process to the state was another feather in the wily old man’s crown. Through a clever management of contradictions, Rao brought down the country’s temperature which had shot to alarming heights in the late 1980s and the early 1990s.
HIS biggest political success, at another level, was the way he slowly but steadily upstaged all his principal rivals. He demolished all the power centres, whether it was Sonia Gandhi’s or Sharad Pawar’s or Arjun Singh’s. The one-time famous ‘shouting brigade’ of 10 Janpath had vanished into thin air, and the strongest of Rajiv-Sonia loyalists had turned into Rao courtiers.
Narasimha Rao will perhaps go down as one of the most cerebral Prime Ministers that India has had so far. It was a sheer delight to see the way he could demolish the Opposition’s charges during the no-confidence motions that he faced in Parliament, and yet he could never convince you that he was open and above board. He never even tried to. His was just cold logic and erudition devoid of any moral principles. Rao had mastered all the guile and chicanery that Chanakya had taught Chandragupta, he had taken all the leaves of Machiavelli’s Prince, but he finally proved the limitations of intellect and statecraft and political wizardry.
All these can help a leader for a time, it can even take him to the heights of political power, but it cannot earn him the love and respect and admiration of the people, without which he can be just a machine politician. Rao was good till his machine worked, but when it collapsed he was suddenly a pathetic sight, dragged from court to court in utter ignominy. For a Prime Minister to lose elections and power is no big deal; even Winston Churchill had suffered defeat at the height of his achievements. The real tragedy of Rao’s political career was the way it ended: he was denied even a ticket by the party he had ruled for five years. Here was a great lesson for those who believe that morality has no place in politics.
Excerpted from Prime Ministers: Nehru to Vajpayee by Janardan Thakur, Eeshwar Prakashan, New Delhi