The year 1991
India is facing bankruptcy. The government rushes to the International Monetary Fund for an emergency loan of $ 2.2 billion. The IMF says: Pledge 67 tons of gold as collateral! The first of the flights carrying the precious cargo takes off from New Delhi on 21 May. India temporarily tides over the balance of payment crisis, but the government collapses.
It is mid-term poll. In a rally in Tamil Nadu, Rajiv Gandhi is assassinated by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The sympathy wave helps the Congress party form a minority government. But the question is, who will head it? The party satraps want someone pliable. They zero in on P V Narasimha Rao. Having retired from politics on health issues, Rao is not even a member of the Parliament. Thrilled at the status, the party 'unanimously' elects him its leader, and has him sworn in as Prime Minister. An ideal stop-gap arrangement till someone from the 'dynasty' takes over!
But Rao has different ideas. He announces his arrival by breaking an age-old tradition, handing over the crucial Finance portfolio to a technocrat Dr Manmohan Singh, rather than a seasoned politician. He also retains the Ministry of Industry. Rao, then goes on to jettison practically every single 'vote-catching' ideology of the Congress party. Neither Jawaharlal Nehru's socialism nor Indira Gandhi's Licence Raj has any place in his scheme of things. The country's protected markets are thrown open to foreign investors. Indian firms are permitted to raise capital from abroad. The Rupee is made convertible on trade account. Rao also deals with the tricky issue of devaluation quite deftly, in 'instalments'! By the time he is through, the Rupee depreciates by almost 20 percent!
His detractors keenly await the upcoming parliamentary bye-election in Nandyal as an ideal 'pay back' opportunity. But Rao upsets their apple cart again, winning the seat by over 5 lakh votes and entering the Guinness Book Of World Records for the biggest victory margin ever.
Rao's contributions are not limited to economics. He brings about normalcy in the strife ridden states of Punjab and J&K. Outsmarting the Arab countries, he allows Israel to open its embassy. India responds with maturity to the unification of East and West Germany, disintegration of the Soviet Union, and the emergence of ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) as a regional power group. Improved relations with the West makes India's entry to the UN Security Council a distinct possibility.
It is also now on record that the nuclear tests at Pokhran were actually planned by Rao. During the swearing-in-ceremony of Atal Bihari Vajpayee as his successor in 1996, Rao is said to have slipped in a note that said: 'The bomb is ready. You can go ahead.'
He was the first from outside the 'dynasty' and the South, to serve as Prime Minister for a full term. The only event to mar an otherwise gainful rule, was the destruction of the Babri Masjid.
The congress party lost the election that followed. Rao resigned. He was soon entrapped in litigations of corruption, bribery and fraud. The intent and magnitude of the conspiracy were shocking. What hurt him even more, was the utter disregard and disdain of his own colleagues. After a brief illness, Rao succumbed to cardiac arrest on 23 December 2004. The 'powers that were' overruled a cremation befitting the status of a former Prime Minister. 24 hours of wrangling, and his body was finally flown out and laid to rest in Hyderabad. A conscious effort to bury his image and name started almost instantly.
If today, India enjoys the status of one of the fastest growing economies in the world, witnessing substantially enhanced living standards (Drive 150 kilometers for Tea?), we have only one person to remember, appreciate and eulogise: P V Narasimha Rao.
"Greatness is not measured by what one accomplishes,
but by the opposition one overcomes to reach his goals."
- Dorothy Height