Congress bigger than dynasty
A Surya Prakash
Speaking at a function to mark the 125th foundation day of the Congress last month, party president Sonia Gandhi said that over the next year, the party “will recall those remarkable men and women without whose sacrifices and contributions, we would not be where we are today; we will also mark those events that have defined contemporary India, events shaped by our leaders that have left an indelible imprint on the nation’s social, political and economic history”. According to her, the party has been extraordinarily fortunate “to have had men and women of courage, integrity, sagacity and dedication to lead us”.
During her speech, Ms Gandhi showered fulsome praise on Jawaharlal Nehru, Mrs Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, ‘generously’ devoted two lines to Lal Bahadur Shastri (lest her partisanship become obvious) but made no mention of PV Narasimha Rao, who was one of our greatest Prime Ministers. Since we are celebrating the 60th anniversary of our republic, all citizens who take pride in India becoming an economic powerhouse in the 21st century will be doing a signal disservice to the real heroes of India if they allow Ms Gandhi’s deliberate omission of Rao’s name to go unchallenged.
The facts are as follows: Rao became the Prime Minister on June 21, 1991. The country’s economy was in a shambles when he entered office. Foreign exchange reserves had plummeted to precarious levels and the rate of inflation was 13 per cent and eventually rose to 17 per cent. The predecessor Government, headed by Chandra Shekhar, had pledged gold to the Bank of England to raise $ 200 million because India was on the verge of defaulting on payments. We had just Rs 2,100 crore in foreign exchange — barely enough to pay the import bill for two weeks.
When Rao passed away in 2004, the country’s foreign exchange reserves were $ 140 billion (Rs 6 lakh crore). In the last week of December 2009, when Ms Gandhi felt that Rao was not worthy of a mention at the Congress’s 125th anniversary, India’s forex reserves were close to U.S $ 285 billion (Rs 13 lakh crore !). Apart from this remarkable turnaround on the forex front, the country has achieved spectacular results in terms of per capita income and GDP growth. The media and communication boom that one sees today has its origins in Rao’s decision to end the Government’s monopoly in these sectors. India is now the second fastest growing economy and every nation in the world is keen to have a slice of the action. In short, Rao was ahead of Mr APJ Abdul Kalam in igniting the minds of Indians.
The second but equally commendable achievement of Rao was the grit and sagacity with which he tackled the problem of militancy in Punjab. The seeds of separatism were sown in Punjab during the tenure of Mrs Indira Gandhi and continued unabated during Rajiv Gandhi’s prime ministership. The situation in Punjab appeared to be spiralling out of control when Rajiv Gandhi demitted office in 1989. It needed a cerebral and gutsy Prime Minister like Rao to retrieve ground. But for the firmness displayed by him, Punjab could well have become the first State to secede from India. Yet, Rao is not worthy of a mention by the Congress president.
The Nehru-Gandhis have always been parsimonious in acknowledging the contributions of national leaders other than those who belonged to their family. This is a trait that is obvious from the days of Jawaharlal Nehru, when everything was done to suppress the contribution of Sardar Patel, who successfully integrated 564 princely states and gave us a united India, and BR Ambedkar, who presided over the Constitution Committee.
The same trend continued when Mrs Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi were at the helm. Ms Sonia Gandhi is obviously carrying forward the family tradition. That is why although she says the party will remember leaders who have left “an indelible imprint on the nation’s social, political and economic history”, she makes no mention of Rao.
Further, although she says that the party has been fortunate “to have had men and women of courage, integrity, sagacity and dedication to lead us”, she lacks the grace to acknowledge the contribution of a man who displayed both courage and sagacity at a crucial time.
But, the suppression of Rao’s achievements is not the only thing as far as this speech is concerned. The bigger problem is the attempt by her to credit Rao’s signal achievements on the economic front to Rajiv Gandhi. There is another family trait, it appears, to appropriate the achievements of others, be they those of Sardar Patel, Ambedkar or Rao. She makes the extraordinary claim that Rajiv Gandhi ushered in the information revolution and that the party’s manifesto of 1991 became the basis for economic policies over the next five years, “which imparted new strength and direction to our economy and society”, meaning thereby that Rao deserved no credit at all for what he achieved as Prime Minister.
We need to examine this claim. Rajiv Gandhi was Prime Minister for five years from October 31, 1984. Just a year after he demitted office, India was desperately pledging gold to the Bank of England for a measly $ 200 million and Ms Sonia Gandhi wants us to believe that he ushered in our economic recovery! Yet another claim made by her is that “he brought peace to troubled parts of our country”. Nothing can be more fatuous. Rajiv Gandhi defended the pogrom against Sikhs in his infamous speech at the Boat Club in New Delhi in November 1984. During his prime ministership, Punjab militancy was at its height and there were scores of killings and bombings. In those days, it required real courage to venture into a cinema hall or to travel by public transport in Punjab and Delhi. The man who saved Punjab for India and brought back peace to that State was Rao.
Finally, although Ms Gandhi’s speech at her party’s anniversary is loaded with omissions, it may have its uses. It can enter textbooks dealing with the law of evidence as a classic example of ‘suppressio veri, suggestio falsi’!
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