Did PV Narasimha Rao want Congress to contemplate life after the Nehru family?

1991 was a turning point for national politics, writes Sanjaya Baru.
Did PV Narasimha Rao want Congress to contemplate life after the Nehru family?
Did PV Narasimha Rao want Congress to contemplate life after the Nehru family?
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By Sanjaya Baru

Most of us think of 1991 as a turning point for the economy. It should be clear now that it was also a turning point for national politics. After the long reign of the Nehru-Gandhi family from 1947 to 1989, with a three-year interruption from 1977-80, the Congress was elected to office for the first time in 1991 under the leadership of a ‘non-family’ political leader.


PV’s first major political move was to convene a session of the AICC in April 1992. He announced that the party would conduct organizational elections in late 1991–early 1992, ahead of the session. It had been a long time—almost two decades—since the Congress had conducted organizational elections. The last time that India’s oldest and largest political party had internal organizational elections was in 1973. For two decades after that Indira and her sons, first Sanjay and then Rajiv, ran the party as if it were a family proprietorship.

The Tirupati session was historic because it was the first such session after 1966 when neither the prime minister nor the party president belonged to the Nehru-Gandhi family. In 1966, the prime minister was Lal Bahadur Shastri and the party president was K. Kamaraj. PV wanted the Congress to return to a pre-1966 trajectory, seeking a future independent of any one family. Why should the Congress remain only the ‘Indira Congress’? It ought to return to its roots as the Indian National Congress, a normal political party where any member could aspire to rise to the top.

By calling for elections to party posts, including the all-powerful CWC, PV was seeking to break the power structure he had inherited, and create a new one. PV’s decision to convene an AICC session also ended all talk of ‘one man-one post’—that the same person should not hold both the posts of prime minister and party president. From 1980, as we have seen, the party president and prime minister were the same person—Indira and Rajiv. PV’s rivals—mainly Arjun Singh and Sonia loyalists like Fotedar—demanded that PV should step down as president of the party now that he was prime minister. Rather than reject their demand, PV called for party elections that would determine who would be elected to the party’s decision-making bodies. If the prime minister were to be ‘elected’ president, so be it.

Some commentators have suggested that PV chose Tirupati as the venue both because it was situated in the Rayalaseema region, home to his constituency of Nandyal, and also because of its religious significance as among the holiest of Hindu temples in southern India. However, there could well have been a third and a very political reason for the choice of Tirupati.

It was here that a group of five senior Congress leaders—K. Kamaraj, N. Sanjiva Reddy, Atulya Ghosh, S. Nijalingappa and Srinivas Mallya—had met in October 1963 to contemplate life after Nehru. With Nehru’s health deteriorating after India’s ignominious pushback by China in the border war of 1962, the big political question in India was ‘After Nehru Who?’ This group later evolved into what has been called ‘the Syndicate’ within the Congress Party. In 1991 PV may well have wanted the party to contemplate life after the Nehru family.


With Rajiv’s death and PV’s election, the Congress became implicitly divided into four camps: First, the Nehru-Gandhi family loyalists whose power and privilege derived from their service to Rajiv and Sonia. They were the ones who had earlier made sure that Rajiv became prime minister after Indira’s death and they were the most insistent on making Sonia party president after Rajiv’s death. While the formal resolution inviting Sonia to lead the party was moved by PV, among others, the move was pushed by members of the coterie, including Fotedar, Dhawan and the like; second, a north Indian group led by Arjun Singh, Jagannath Mishra, and N. D. Tiwari; third, a group led by Sharad Pawar; and, fourth, a south Indian group that backed PV, actively managed by K. Karunakaran, that seemed to have the backing of the then president, R. Venkataraman.

All these groups found their individual expression in the run-up to and at the Tirupati AICC session. While PV’s bête noire Arjun Singh was made convenor of the resolutions Drafting Committee, PV loyalist Jitendra Prasada, a Brahmin from Uttar Pradesh, was made convenor of the Steering Committee, organizing the session. Senior leaders representing different regions and castes found representation on the two committees. Over 400 Congress members filed nominations to contest for a seat on the all-powerful CWC.

Arjun Singh demonstrated his political strength by emerging as the top scorer in the CWC elections. The other nine to get elected included, in order of votes polled: A. K. Antony, Jitendra Prasada, Sharad Pawar, R. K. Dhawan, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Balram Jakhar, Rajesh Pilot, Ahmed Patel and K. Vijayabhaskara Reddy. Pranab Mukherjee was among the losers.


Things did not, however, go the way PV may have hoped, given that his arch rival emerged as the biggest scorer and his allies, Karunakaran and Mukherjee, lost while his critics, Antony and Jakhar, won. The Kautilyan PV found a way out. He expressed displeasure that not a single woman or Dalit leader had been elected. He wondered how fair the election process was. His supporters claimed that upper castes had seized the election process. PV struck quickly by suggesting that all elected members resign so that he could bring in women and Dalit representatives. In reconstituting the CWC through nominations PV brought in his friend Karunakaran, a Dalit from Maharashtra, Sushil Kumar Shinde, and Oman Deori, a tribal woman from the Northeast.

He renominated all the elected members and thereby made Arjun Singh’s and Pawar’s tenure in the CWC subject to his authority. PV’s supporters approved of this. They made the point that women, Dalit and tribal members of the party would have been unhappy that these regional satraps had sidelined weaker sections; PV had shown courage by taking them on and widening the social base of the CWC.

The Tirupati session strengthened PV and the party organization and, in doing so, became an important step in the direction of once again making the INC a truly national political party that was not identified with any one individual or family.

Excerpted with the permission of Aleph Book Company from the book “1991: How PV Narasimha Rao made history” by Sanjaya Baru.

You can buy the book here

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