NEW DELHI: When he passed away in December 2004, P V Narasimha Rao was writing a second book on his life and times. The sequel to his ‘Insider’ remained unfinished but now, another book based on a treasure trove of his personal papers and interviews with those close to him promises to tell a fascinating tale: of Rao’s discomfort with Indira Gandhi and the Emergency, his unflattering assessment of Rajiv Gandhi and a rocky relationship with Sonia as well as his role in the Babri demolition.
The book also chronicles how as prime minister, Rao micro-managed India’s transformation, from liberalisation to foreign policy, while deliberately keeping a low profile with finance minister Manmohan Singh often taking the flak from Congress dissidents and the party left wing.
In the book being published in July, academic and journalist Vinay Sitapati – given unprecedented access to hundreds of Rao’s personal papers – reveals how as home minister, Rao received a phone call on the evening of October 31, 1984 from a Congressman very close to Rajiv, informing him that Delhi Police, from the commissioner to SHOs, would report directly to the PMO, bypassing Rao.
The ostensible reason was to better contain violence in the aftermath of Indira’s assassination. The less charitable explanation was to ensure inaction, at least for a couple of days, while Sikhs were attacked by Congress-led mobs.
Rao’s private papers among book’s contents
Published by Penguin Random House and due for release on the 25th anniversary of the 1991 “reform” budget, academic and journalist Vinay Sitapati’s book also examines Narasimha Rao’s suspicions that Sonia was keen to supplant him as PM and the deterioration of their relationship as documented by the terse tenor of Sonia’s letters to Rao after 1993. This was when she began to back Congress dissident Arjun Singh and N D Tiwari against Rao. The book also records Rao’s own subtle attempts to sideline Sonia.
“I was inspired by a book I read on Deng Xiaoping and the transformation of China in the 1980s,” Sitapati told TOI. Sitapati was given access to cartons of Rao’s papers by the ex-PM’s family. “It was important to me that the family does not control what I write. Which is why I have been able to write about Rao’s strengths as well as his flaws,” he said.
After the December 6, 1992 Babri demolition, Rao beat the odds and survived as PM. Interestingly, after he promised to rebuild the Babri Masjid the next day, Sitapati found letters from several Cabinet colleagues that advised him against such a move.
While his appointment diary reveals astrologer N K Sharma as his early morning visitor on December 6, 1992, Rao waited till late evening on the day of the demolition to convene a Cabinet meet to dismiss Kalyan Singh government. The reason was not to allow kar sewaks to finish their job. Rao was awaiting the return of his main rival Arjun Singh to Delhi so as to make him part of the decision to dismiss the UP government.
Sitapati, currently pursuing a PhD at Princeton, sees the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom as home minister Rao’s vilest hour. He chose to remain inert, busy ferrying foreign VIPs arriving for Indira Gandhi’s funeral rather than trying to stop the carnage. “Rao chose to listen to his party, rather than to his conscience and Constitution,” Sitapati said.
The book, based on private papers and over a hundred interviews with figures ranging from former PM Manmohan Singh to Rao’s cook Rajaiah, is likely to make Delhi’s political circles sit up and take note as the papers, taken away from his Motilal Nehru Marg residence after his death, have been the subject of considerable speculation.
Rao is more often seen as the man who was hoodwinked – some insist he was complicit – in the razing of Babri Masjid. Rao remained in the shadows despite being the first non-Gandhi PM to complete an entire tenure in office and preside over an economic transition that changed India for ever. Sitapati shows how Rao was deliberately abandoned by Congress after his retirement, with Manmohan Singh being one of the few party leaders who continued to respect Rao’s legacy.
Rao’s decision to unveil the industry policy document on the same day as the 1991 Budget was a masterstroke.