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Narasimha Rao’s style has lessons for today’s leadership: Sanjaya Baru


Sanjaya Baru Interview

Former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao’s style of functioning — reaching out to all shades of opinion as well his detractors — holds important lessons for today’s leadership, feels Sanjaya Baru, veteran journalist and media adviser to former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Baru’s just-published book, “1991: How P.V. Narasimha Rao Made History” (Aleph), describes how, coming back from the verge of retirement, Narasimha Rao turned the country’s fortunes around with deft economic management and astute political handling of a volatile situation.

“The importance of this book today is to draw attention to the art of political management in a highly divided nation. I think India was divided in Narasimha Rao’s time on key issues — economic, foreign policy and social issues.

“He inherited the big problem of the Mandal issue (of reservations for other backward castes, or OBCs) from (predecessor once removed) V.P. Singh. He dealt with it. He tried to seek a solution of the Babri Masjid issue. He reached out to the people. His style was the Nehruvian style of trying to reach out to others, not to alienate his critics but reach out to them and accommodate them. And this is the way India can be managed,” Baru told IANS in an interview.

The most important political decision that Narasimha Rao took as Prime Minister was to have “a professional economist with an international reputation (Manmohan Singh) as his Finance Minister, according to Baru.

The Narasimha Rao-Manmohan Singh duo is credited with opening up the economy and ushering in a slew of economic reforms that India is still benefiting from. But, weren’t the reforms something inevitable, an idea whose time had come?

Baru said that indeed there were few choices before Narasimha Rao at that time, but at the same time there was a strong anti-reform opinion in the government as well as the Congress party.

“It is true that when Narasimha Rao became Prime Minister the situation was so bad that he had very few options before him. But the fact is it required a lot of political courage to take the Congress party along with him. In fact, there was a lot of resistance within the Congress party to what Rao was doing,” Baru said.

“I think at the end of the day it is not simply the ideas that are important, but how you politically steer those ideas, how you get parliament to support you on what you want to do and how you build public opinion. That is where political leadership is important,” he added.

Also, how Narasimha Rao managed to run a minority government for a full term without any hassle too speaks volumes about his shrewd political management, according to Baru.

“I think there we should acknowledge the very supportive role of Atal Bihari Vajpayee (Leader of Opposition for two years during Rao’s term). The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) took the view that the country is in a crisis and even though Narasimha Rao’s was a minority government, they would support it as far as economic reforms were concerned.

“They criticised the government inside parliament but they never voted against it. There was never a no-confidence motion brought against the Rao government in the first year. And I think that is an example of very deft political management by Narasimha Rao,” Baru said.

According to Baru, even on the volatile Ayodhya movement, Narasimha Rao managed to strike an understanding with the BJP, but it was Congress insiders who did him in.

“As I said, Rao had a very good equation with Vajpayee and the BJP kept quiet for the entire first year. In 1991, they did not aggravate the Ayodhya situation. The aggravation started in 1992,” he said.

“As Narasimha Rao has himself written, part of the problem was within his own party. Some people were feeling uncomfortable at his becoming so powerful. So they allowed the issue to be built up to a point where his position becomes weak,” Baru added.

He said that there is little reason to not believe Narasimha Rao’s account of the Babri Masjid demolition as he “wrote and published the book on this subject” in his lifetime.

“Rao is the only Prime Minister who has written a book on his own explaining what happened. I trust his account that he was betrayed both by Kalyan Singh and the BJP as also his own party. His party played a double game by not allowing him to negotiate a settlement that he was trying,” Baru said.

According to Baru, it was senior Congress leader Arjun Singh who led the revolt against Narasimha Rao and who created problems for him.

“Arjun Singh also created trouble for Manmohan Singh as well during UPA-I. And that is why he was not inducted in the UPA-II,” Baru said.

Baru rues that there have been attempts to give a lot of credit of the 1991 economic reforms to leaders like Rajiv Gandhi and others.

“Last year, Jairam Ramesh wrote a book wherein he has created an impression that whatever Narasimha Rao did, the ideas were all by Rajiv Gandhi and the implementation was all by Manmohan Singh. He portrays Rao as a supporting actor. But the point I am making is he was not a supporting actor, he was the real hero,” Baru said.

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