PV: The gentle revolutionary

PV: The gentle  revolutionary

Apolitical assessment of a leader who was the Prime Minister of a country of a billion people for a full term of five years against odds, whose...

Apolitical assessment of a leader who was the Prime Minister of a country of a billion people for a full term of five years against odds, whose performance marked a watershed in the country's development, and whose qualities of head and heart have few parallels, is not an easy task; more so, if the person in question passes away unsung. The man in focus here is Pamulaparthi Venkata Narasimha Rao (popularly known as PV), who was the Prime Minister of the country from 1991 to 1996. So far, India has seen 13 persons occupying the exalted post, excluding the temporary arrangement made in respect of Gulzarilal Nanda.

Post-Independence, the Indian National Congress, in its various avatars, has ruled the country for 52 years through six prime ministers viz Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru (17 years), Lal Bahadur Shastri (2 years), Indira Gandhi (15 years), Rajiv Gandhi (5 years), P V Narasimha Rao (5 years) and Dr Manmohan Singh (incumbent) since 2004. The remaining 13 years were shared by non-Congress parties with as many as seven prime ministers of whom Atal Behari Vajapayee of Bharatiya Janata Party alone held power for six years. In a way, PV was an exception to become a PM, as the Congress has always preferred someone from the Nehru-Gandhi family to occupy the post. The best part was that PV could last a full term, proving all political pundits of his time wrong.

He was not a mass leader. Nor did he have the charisma to land high positions. He desisted from approaching others for favours, big or small. Despite all this, he became a minister and chief minister in Andhra Pradesh; a cabinet minister at Centre; and then the Congress president before occupying the PM's seat.

A political adversary from PV's home district once exasperatedly said: "...While commanding the support and loyalty of more than three-fourths of MLAs from the district, it becomes necessary for me to prove my stature and credibility time and again, whereas this man, with none behind him, walks into the corridors of power without ever asking for it. We do all the hard work among the people, but power eludes us. I do not remember a single instance when he sought or manoeuvred for power. Power appears to follow him like his shadow. My complaint against him is that he does not help people when a word from him is enough to make anybody a minister. As for his calibre, he is head and shoulders above any person in the party, with his immense knowledge, sharp intellect, cool thinking and great debating skills."

The foregoing views about the late Prime Minister were expressed in 1987 when PV was a senior minister in Rajiv Gandhi's cabinet. To be a minister in a State or at the Centre is one thing and to become the chief minister of a premier state like Andhra Pradesh is another. When PV became the chief minister of AP, there were comments that he did not command the confidence of even his cabinet ministers. In the course of agitation then for separate Telengana state, a change of guard became inevitable at the state level. A person hailing from Telangana had to be chosen. The outgoing chief minister Brahmananda Reddy suggested PV's name. His bete noire Dr M Channa Reddy lost the race when Indira Gandhi preferred PV.

Similarly, his elevation as Prime Minister was equally unexpected. Rajiv was assassinated when the General Election was halfway through. The performance of the Congress party in first phase was dismal. Sonia was disinclined to enter active politics. Among the senior leaders, each had his own ambitions and therefore was unacceptable to the others. PV was the only person at that level who had elected to retire from active politics and was staying in Delhi at the behest of Rajiv. The Congress Working Committee members thought that PV, with his frail health, was the man on his way out and made him the acting Congress president in place of Rajiv, expecting least that the party would return to power.

Surprisingly, the Congress fared very well in the second phase of polling, though its final tally fell short of an absolute majority. A man was needed to head and run a minority government at the Centre. The mantle fell upon the shoulders of PV and he became the Prime Minister. He inducted Dr Manmohan Singh as the Finance Minister and together they repaired a shattered economy. Liberalization became the new mantra for economic reforms. A bold decision, it marked a watershed in the country's economy since it effected reversal of a policy that had been followed for over 40 years.

The Congress lost power after PV's term as PM. He was held responsible for the debacle and made to step down from the presidentship of the Congress. His action in the Jain hawala case, indiscretions by a few of his Cabinet ministers, his refusal to withdraw support to a government in UP and his preference for AIADMK as poll ally vis a vis DMK earned him many enemies within and outside his party. When he faced legal action in respect of certain deeds of others for which he held vicarious responsibility, people completely deserted him. Upon coming out unscathed in the cases, his terse comment was: 'The truth is vindicated'. Detractors of PV point out that he did not take concrete steps to prevent the demolition of Babri Masjid. There is also a view that he could have rushed the army to protect the shrine. Others dismiss such views on the grounds that the issue then was too complex in nature. Legislation that he brought in subsequently to protect religious places and monuments is cited as proof of his secular credentials.

PV never used his authority for personal gains. His long-time friend N D Tiwari fell out with him because PV did not oblige him in bringing down an elected government in UP. Karunakaran, another close friend, became his enemy because he was asked to quit as chief minister in favour of his arch rival AK Antony. As AP's minister for education, PV was instrumental in establishing residential schools, many of which have since recorded outstanding results.

The land reforms that he introduced in AP as chief minister are considered radical in the country and the enabling piece of legislation is deemed far superior to that of states ruled by communists. India's present high GDP growth rate is seen as the outcome of the reforms that he initiated in 1991. Should there be a fitting memorial for this Telugu bidda, the apt epitaph could be: "A humble man of no pretentions who rose to the highest executive position of the country by exceptional talent and fortitude, though the people around him envied and hated but could not ignore". If its wording were left to PV, he perhaps would have settled for: "I died with my head held high".

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