What the optics of conferring Bharat Ratna to PV Narasimha Rao means for the BJP

Former Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao was the first Congress leader outside of the Nehru-Gandhi family to complete the full five-year term. When Sonia Gandhi became the Congress president, Rao did not find a place in the Congress Working Committee (CWC).
PV Narasimha Rao
PV Narasimha Rao
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Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday, February 9, announced that former Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao will be conferred with the Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian award. Along with former PM, Chaudhary Charan Singh and agricultural scientist Dr MS Swaminathan will be posthumously honoured with the Bharat Ratna.

There has been a demand that Narasimha Rao be conferred the award from several leaders in the Telugu states like former Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao (KCR), Chandrababu Naidu and others. In fact, the previous state government under KCR observed a year-long centenary celebrations for Narasimha Rao.  

Rao was the first Congress leader outside of the Nehru-Gandhi family to complete the full five-year term as Prime Minister. When Sonia Gandhi became the Congress president, Rao did not find a place in the party’s most powerful decision-making panel, the Congress Working Committee (CWC).

In 2014, when KCR put forth the demand to honour Narasimha Rao with the Bharat Ratna, Telugu Desam Party (TDP) chief N Chandrababu Naidu backed the demand.

Reacting to the news of Bharat Ratna being conferred to the former PM, Naidu wrote on X, “Proud moment for all Telugus across the globe as son of the soil, former Prime Minister Sri #PVNarasimhaRao Garu has been honoured with the much deserving #BharatRatna. An eminent scholar, leader, economist, writer, statesman, polyglot, and a humanist - PV Garu’s stellar leadership and pioneering economic reforms steered India through tough times, putting our great nation on the path to achieve greatness on the world stage.”

“This is a slap on the face of the Gandhi family and the Congress party. Despite being a member of the opposing party, PM Modi has bestowed the honour on my grandfather which has been long overdue,” NV Subash told India Today. Subash is the spokesperson of the BJP. 

 Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Jagan Mohan Reddy in a statement said, “It's an honour to all Telugu speaking people as the statesman, scholar with high political and moral values gets the highest civilian award which he richly deserves and it merits an all-round applause.”

However, AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi has remained tight-lipped about the honour. In the past, Owaisi was unwilling to back BRS in their Bharat Ratna demand for Narasimha Rao, as it was under his tenure as the PM, the Babri Masjid was demolished. According to Owaisi, PV Narasimha  Rao “allowed” the demolition of the Babri Masjid.

The BJP and several other regional parties including the Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS) have been critical of the Congress party for sidelining Narasimha Rao, the sole Telugu Prime Minister the country has seen. BRS MLC Vani Devi appreciated the gesture of naming her father for the Bharat Ratna and praised PM Narendra Modi for the decision.

In December 2004, when Rao who also served as the Chief Minister of united Andhra Pradesh passed away, his mortal remains were kept outside and tributes were paid outside the gate of Congress headquarters in Delhi. Since then, several supporters of the former PM, who hailed from Warangal district in Telangana, have been vociferous in their criticism of Congress. 

The Congress has in the past been silent on the topic of Narasimha Rao as he has been accused of allowing the demolition of Babri Masjid and not doing enough to stop it. It also didn’t bode well for the party that Narasimha Rao shared a close friendship with Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee. 

In August 2023, former Union minister and Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar described PV Narasimha Rao as the ‘first BJP prime minister’ of India and accused him of leading the country from “the secular path to the communal path.” In a 1993 interview, when PV was asked about the accommodation he showed to the BJP while the party carried out the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, he said he wasn’t mistaken and it was an exercise in folly to mistrust other parties and governments.

“I cannot become unprincipled and violate the constitution because somebody else has done it. I mean, I don’t think anyone can recommend that or commend that,” he had said. 

Considering Congress’ criticism and presumed sidelining of the former PM, BJP has time and again invoked PV Narasimha Rao’s name to point to how the Congress cannot accept anyone outside the Nehru dynasty and charged them with being nepotistic. 

The BJP has also continually appropriated PV Narasimha Rao, a man considered a hero among Telugus. However, the Bharat Ratna announcement comes at a time when Congress holds significant sway over Telangana after its recent victory in the 2023 Assembly polls. 

“It is hard to say what and if any impact this has on the electorate. However, ahead of the Lok Sabha elections scheduled for May 2024, this becomes a symbolic tool to rally people against the Congress for shaming the only Telugu Prime Minister the country has seen,” remarks Chigurupati Ramachandraiah, a political analyst and retired professor of the Centre for Economic and Social Studies (CESS).

Ramachandraiah added that while the move will have miniscule impact in Andhra Pradesh, in Telangana it could prove to be an embarrassment for the ruling Congress if they don’t welcome the move. 

It is worth noting that PV – as Narasimha Rao was fondly called, is credited with averting the 1991 economic crisis when the current account deficit swelled to 3% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and speculations were rife that India would default on its external payment obligations. The Rao led government devalued the rupee and pledged gold holdings to shore up forex reserves.

PV Narasimha Rao was also well-known for being a multi-linguist, who could speak Telugu, Sanskrit, Marathi, Kannada, Urdu, Persian, English and French among other languages. 

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