Monday, June 29, 2020

P. V. Narasimha Rao And The Elusive ‘Bharat Ratna’!

Excerpted from ‘Twisting Facts To Suit Theories’ And Other Selections From Voxindica. (2016). Authors Press. New Delhi. pp. 429–434

One may not agree with Lord Birkenhead’s view that ‘India is a land of mobs’ (1930, Turning Points in History), but it is a land of inconsistencies. However, he might not have been far off the mark when he said that ‘more than any [other] country in the world, single individuals of outstanding personality have been able temporarily to impose their will upon its destiny’. A Prime Minister might be ranked third in India’s official order of precedence but a Sonia Gandhi took precedence over the Prime Minister for ten years of its recent history. Her son-in-law did not need any official order of precedence to be treated as a ‘more equal’ citizen at airports and for Chief Ministers to kowtow before him.

In the official order of precedence, No. 5A was inserted to accommodate the Deputy Prime Minister (probably after Vallabhbhai Patel became the first Deputy Prime Minister in 1950) and No. 7A after the institution of the Bharat Ratna in 1954. Article 18 (1) of the Indian Constitution prohibits the use of Bharat Ratna as a title and therefore, it cannot be used to prefix names, despite its general misuse. Its recipients are known as laureates.

As an aside it might be mentioned that Article 18 (2) prohibits Indian citizens from receiving ‘any title from any foreign state’. This precluded Sunil Gavaskar from accepting a British Knighthood but it did not prevent Sonia Gandhi from accepting the Belgian title, Order of Leopold.

Thus Bharat Ratna, which officially, cannot be flaunted as a title, accords its recipients precedence over Ambassadors, Chief Ministers and Governors of states who are, in that order ranked at No. 8.

Indians generally rue the omission of Mahatma Gandhi from the Nobel roster but there have been several notable omissions from the list of Bharat Ratna laureates. One of them was Sathya Sai Baba who was passed over, presumably because he was a Hindu god-man. One can say without any exaggeration, that Sathya Sai Baba’s service to humanity was (and is) unparalleled anywhere in the world. He established world-class schools, colleges, universities and hospitals all of which provide free services to the poor. Thousands of devotees who flock to his ashram daily are provided free food.

Under the ‘Sri Sathya Sai Drinking Water Supply Projects’ he constructed a drinking water project at a cost of US$ 63 million to supply drinking water to 1.2 million people in 750 villages of the arid Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh. Similar projects supply drinking water to drought-prone villages in Mahabubanagar and Medak districts in Telangana, and Chennai. His super-specialty hospitals in Puttaparthi and Bengaluru conducted 24,473 open-heart surgeries between November 1991 and October 2014, without charging a dime. They were all free. They continue to do so.

The other notable exception is that of former Prime Minister, P. V. Narasimha Rao. In order to understand the magnitude of his contribution to national revival, the circumstances that prevailed when he became Prime Minister should be viewed in perspective. In point of fact, the year 1991 marks the beginning of a new epoch in independent India’s history. Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination brought to the nation’s helm a man who was preparing to quietly walking away into the sunset. Narasimha Rao had been in politics since independence and served as Chief Minister, Union Home Minister, Foreign Minister and Defence Minister.

The economic crisis that came to a head that year was looming large on the horizon for years, fuelled by bureaucratic sloth, economic profligacy and political myopia. The economy was floundering on account of a depreciating rupee, billowing external debt and the resultant balance of payments crisis. The last straw on the proverbial camel’s back was the dramatically rising oil prices caused by the 1990-91 Gulf War. In order to cope with the crisis, the Chandra Sekhar government had to first sell twenty tons of gold (on which India had a repurchase option for six months) to raise $400 million in May that year and the successor government had to pledge a further forty-seven tons in July to raise a further $200 million loan. It was a national shame for a culture that treats gold as goddess Lakshmi, to part with family gold for daily necessities. Dr. Manmohan Singh who became the finance minister in the successor government did not have the heart to use words like ‘sell’ or ‘pledge’ when he informed the parliament about the transactions in November 1991. Instead he said ‘sent abroad’ and ‘export’!

Following the crisis, the Narasimha Rao government initiated a series of steps to redeem the economy. The steps were a radical departure from the pernicious ‘Nehruvian socialism’ and set the nation on a track of progress. Those who do not want to credit the progress to Narasimha Rao, ascribe the economic policy to Manmohan Singh’s genius. Yes, the policy framework could be designed only by an economist with vision but it required Narasimha Rao’s sagacity to give political cover for its implementation. Second, he needed the boldness first to sell the reforms to his own party which considered any departure from Nehru’s policies a sacrilege and then to the nation. The validity of the argument could be seen when we notice Manmohan Singh could not continue with his reform policy when he himself was the Prime Minister for ten years.

While Narasimha Rao’s economic policies are willy-nilly acknowledged there are two other areas of governance in which he left an indelible stamp on the history of the nation.

The first was defeating the Khalistani movement, which ‘had consumed 21,469 lives before it was comprehensively defeated in 1993’. The principal protagonists of the operation were K. P. S. Gill who as Counter-terrorism Chief of Punjab mercilessly and relentlessly executed it and, Beant Singh, who as Chief Minister of Punjab and Narasimha Rao as Prime Minister gave him political cover. Citing Julio Rebeiro, former Director General of Police, Punjab, Gill has this to say of the genesis of the problem:

“I regard Operation Bluestar and the November 1984 massacres as the two most important victories for the cause of ‘Khalistan’ […] not won by the militants, but inflicted […] upon the nation by its own government […] These two events, in combination, gave a new lease of life to a movement which could easily have been contained in 1984 itself.” (Gill, K.P.S. “Endgame in Punjab 1988-1993”. South Asia Terrorism Portal. Accessible from http://goo.gl/83qUhW

By the by, the political authors of Operation Bluestar and the 1984 Sikh genocide had both received the Bharat Ratna! Gill elaborates why stern counter-terrorism measures were needed to eradicate the scourge:

“The defeat of terrorism in Punjab, and I have said this before, was unambiguously the result of the counter-terrorist measures implemented in the state by the security forces. Moreover, the use of this coercive force was (and is) not just a necessary expedient, but a fundamental obligation and duty of constitutional government, and its neglect inflicts great and avoidable suffering on the innocent and law abiding.” (Ibid.)

Lest anyone had any doubt about the political processes (pursued by the aforesaid political authors of Operation Bluestar and the 1984 Sikh genocide) having achieved the objective of annihilating terrorism in Punjab, Gill clarifies:

“One of the dominant myths that these propagandists have tirelessly, and in some measure successfully, circulated is the idea that terrorism in Punjab was defeated not because, but in spite of the use of armed force against the militants. No evidence is ascribed to shore up this claim, but a variety of nebulous theories—essentially populist and politically correct slogans—are propounded regarding a ‘people’s victory’ or a ‘political solution’ that brought peace to the strife-torn province.” (Ibid.)

Had the political master not had the vision to support the stern measures to put down terrorism with an iron hand we would have had another festering wound in the west in addition to the ones in the north and the east, the existence of which is undoubtedly owing to another Bharat Ratna! Who knows, had Narasimha Rao had another shot at power, he would have had some out of the box ideas to contain them!

Another bold step Narasimha Rao took was in the area of foreign affairs by establishing full diplomatic relations with Israel. Although India recognized Israel in September 1950 (a little over two years after its formation), it was not until February 1992 that full diplomatic relations were established. Considering the benefits a bilateral relationship with Israel could provide in the areas of agriculture, defence and counterterrorism, this was inexplicable. The overt reason for India not establishing full diplomatic relations with Israel was that it would displease her Arab neighbours, but the unstated reason was to placate the Muslim vote bank in India. As by the time India established full diplomatic relations with Israel, the Narasimha Rao government was in office for just over eight months, the decision must be said to have been taken very quickly.

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