Ignoring its icons will cost Congress
It is only a matter of time before the BJP appropriates Narasimha Rao just as it did Sardar Patel and other Congress leaders. The Grand Old Party of India will only have itself to blame for it
Friends and admirers from across the country paid rich tributes to former Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao on his 97th birth anniversary last week and recalled his sagacity and statesmanship in pulling India out of the economic crisis of 1991 and for stamping out terrorism and secessionism in Punjab. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was first off-the-mark with a glowing tribute to his predecessor on Twitter. Modi said, “Remembering our former Prime Minister Shri PV Narasimha Rao on his birth anniversary. Shri Rao is widely respected as a statesman who provided valuable leadership during a critical period of India’s history. Blessed with immense wisdom, he made a mark as a distinguished scholar as well”.
The Telangana Rashtra Samithi Government in Telangana observed the day by holding events to remind the people of Rao’s judicious and philosophical leadership at a critical moment in India’s history and took immense pride in the fact that Rao was not just a Telugu Bidda but also a Telangana Bidda. Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao said that “the people will remember forever and ever” the great services rendered by Rao. The Chief Minister had earlier urged the Union Government to confer the Bharat Ratna on Rao.
On the other hand, the Congress, the party to which Rao owed allegiance all through his life, was not so enthused. It seemed to be dragging its feet when it put out a Tweet hours later remembering Rao for pushing through legislative measures in Parliament although he headed a minority Government. The party underplayed the fact that he had courageously opened up the economy, retrieved Punjab from the clutches of hardcore terrorists and laid the foundation for a new India. This is in line with its policy of underplaying the contribution of party leaders not belonging to the Nehru-Gandhi family.
Rao became the Prime Minister at a very critical time, soon after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. When he took oath as the Prime Minister, the country’s foreign exchange reserves were perilously low at Rs 2,100 crore; just enough to pay bills for a fortnight. The predecessor Government headed by Chandra Shekhar had mortgaged gold to raise foreign exchange of $200 million. Rao realised that India’s economy would go into a spiral if he continued with the moth-eaten socialism of the Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi variety. The country could emerge out of its economic crisis only if he opened up the economy, dismantled the licence-permit raj and encouraged foreign direct investment.
He chose Manmohan Singh as his Finance Minister and backed him to the hilt to push through economic reforms. He shielded Singh from attacks from within the Congress and from the communists. Many Left-leaning Congress leaders targeted Singh and accused him of being a lackey of America, but Rao stood by him and retained him as the Finance Minister all through his five-year tenure. The Rao-Singh combine slowly and effectively opened up various sectors from telecom to infrastructure to global investors and lifted many restrictions that had impeded the domestic investor and entrepreneur. Things started to look up within a couple of years and Indians began to feel that they could compete with the rest of the world. In short, Rao enabled Indians to transit from hopelessness to hope.
Although Rao was an outstanding Prime Minister who put the country on a new growth trajectory, the Congress has always been reluctant to remember him and to acknowledge his extraordinary contribution to the nation. It has generally kept Rao out of its posters and pretended as if he was never part of the nation’s history. This is in keeping with the attitude of the party towards outstanding national leaders who did not belong to the Nehru-Gandhi family. Starting from the days of Jawaharlal Nehru, the party that ruled the country for 55 years after Independence and uninterruptedly from 1947 to 1977, has systematically tried to wipe out Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Subhas Chandra Bose, BR Ambedkar, Syama Prasad Mukherjee and a host of other leaders from the national psyche. Over the years, every party statement and document has eulogised Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi and generally ignored the work of others, including that of Narasimha Rao, who was one of India’s best Prime Ministers.
This is most unfortunate because the contribution of each of these leaders is phenomenal. The political map of India would never be what it is but for Sardar Patel and Ambedkar’s contribution to the drafting of the Constitution is well known. The new India that we see today would never have been possible if Rao had not had the gumption to discard the policies of the Nehru-Gandhis and to put the country on a new growth trajectory. The country’s foreign exchange reserves stood at $140 billion when he died in 2004.
The BJP has cashed in the reluctance of the Congress to acknowledge the immense contribution of its own leaders and has almost effortlessly appropriated them. The first was Sardar Patel. This process began some time ago when Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani were at the helm of the party. Prime Minister Modi stepped up the efforts to accord due recognition to Patel by launching a major project in Gujarat to remember the Sardar which includes erecting the tallest statue in the world.
It is now too late for the Congress to retrieve one of its most valuable treasures. Slowly but surely the party has allowed one of its icons to slip out of its hands. Ambedkar is the icon of the BSP and he also finds pride of place in the BJP’s scheme of things. Both these leaders have virtually been snatched away from the Congress pantheon and India’s oldest party is finding it difficult to shake off the image of belonging to just one parivar — the Nehru-Gandhi family.
Rao is yet another icon which the family-centric Congress has virtually discarded. Never to miss out on an opportunity, the BJP, in recent years, has made it a point to remind the nation of the stellar contribution of Rao. Going by the alacrity of Prime Minister Modi on Rao’s recent birth anniversary and the warmth and respect that he has displayed for his predecessor, it is only a matter of time before the BJP wrests this Congress icon as well.
(The writer is Chairman, Prasar Bharati)
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