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Book Extract: Monk To Monarch

In 1991, P. V. Narasimha Rao had started preparing for a life outside Delhi. But that was not meant to be

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It was the afternoon of 2 April 1991. P.V. Narasimha Rao made the five-minute car journey from his Delhi home on Motilal Nehru Marg to the expansive bungalow at the intersection of Janpath and Akbar Road. The hereditary ruler of the Congress party was distributing tickets for the coming national elections. Rao was nervous.

Over the last few months, courtiers close to the Family had hinted that Rajiv Gandhi was finally planning the transition to a younger Cabinet. These whispers resonated with Rao’s own exhaustion with politics. He had won eight consecutive elections, and at sixty-nine, was getting old for the ingratiating namaste.

In the aftermath of his 1989 election victory from Ramtek in Maharashtra, he had written to his childhood friend in Warangal of an ‘extremely tough . . . last lap of the campaign’.’ ‘In the process,’ he complained, ‘my blood sugar shot up very high and I am in need of complete rest and regulated life for several months now. I don’t know what to do.’2 His health, often perilous when out of power, plummeted. After his open heart surgery in 1990, he had told his youngest son that ‘God has given me a second lease of life’.

Rao had by now developed a finely tuned sense of political timing. He perceived that his own time was running out.

In the private confines of his diary, Rao wrote that in politics, everyone has a destined level: ‘In my case, both with Indiraji and Rajiv, it was the level of a Central Minister—and no Higher. There was talk about the post of Congress President, Rashtrapathi, Vice-President, etc. . . . but every time they eluded me. And this happened several times. Yet, I did not bother, personally, since I still suffer from that phenomenon called lack of ambition.’

Rao must have been rehearsing these thoughts when he was ushered into the meeting with Rajiv Gandhi. Also present in the room was a senior official from the Intelligence Bureau. This bureaucrat remembers Rao requesting Rajiv to offer his Lok Sabha seat to someone else, because ‘I am too sick to campaign again.’

That it was Rao who anticipated Rajiv was confirmed by two of his sons and a Family loyalist present in the antechamber. Subramanian Swamy, a Cabinet minister at the time, tells a different story. ‘I was with my friend Rajiv,’ he remembered in 2015 in his office in Delhi. ‘[Rajiv’s secretary] Vincent George walked in and said, “Narasimha Rao has been waiting for a long time.” Rao came in and Rajiv said in my presence, “Mr Narasimha Rao, you have become very old. I don’t think you should contest Lok Sabha. I will bring you eventually to the Rajya Sabha.”’

Rao’s confidante Kalyani Shankar adds, ‘Rao wanted to switch places with Rajya Sabha MP N.K.P. Salve, but Rajiv refused.’ The conversation apparently ended with Rajiv cajoling Rao into drafting the party manifesto for the coming election, a face-saver, since manifestos are rarely read by party workers, let alone the average voter.

Rao returned home, changed into a checked lungi and short cotton kurta, and ruminated in his bedroom. News began spreading in Lutyens Delhi that a lengthy career had just ended. It reached Ronen Sen, a young diplomat who was already an insider.

Sen had worked with Rao the foreign minister and would go on to become prime minister Rao’s ambassador to Moscow.

Ronen Sen drove to Rao’s house to see him. Normally bustling, 9 Motilal Nehru Marg was empty, the front gate unguarded. The mannerly diplomat made his way through the house to find Rao slouched in a chair in his bedroom. Feet extended, chin upwards.

Sen had come for a short ‘courtesy call’, a fleeting non-event that is the babble of bureaucratic life. Instead, he listened for hours as a lonely Rao reflected on his youth, his fight against the Nizam, and his early years in the Congress. He interspersed this with details of where the best vadas in Andhra Pradesh could be found.

These ramblings were more reminiscence than self-pity. Rao did not mention the conversation with Rajiv earlier that day. Instead, he regaled Sen with stories of how the Mexican diplomat Jorge Castañeda Álvarez ‘loved chillies’ and would compete with the Telugu Narasimha Rao on who could swallow more. The sun was setting by the time Sen left. An old man was adjusting to the twilight alone.

Rao began to plan for a life outside politics. A life outside Delhi. Worried that he would soon be short of a place to stay when visiting the capital, he had applied to that genteel hospice for geriatrics in the heart of the city, India International Centre.

When he was swiftly admitted to the select club, the former defence, home, health, education, culture, and foreign minister of India, the former chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, was beside himself with joy.

Rao busied himself with Congress meetings to prepare the manifesto. Otherwise, his appointment diary shows that few sought his counsel during this month. On 16 April, he met Congress president Rajiv Gandhi at 4 p.m., and half an hour later was part of the manifesto release at 24 Akbar Road. Ten days later, when Congressmen filed their nominations for the coming elections, Rao, who already knew he was out, nonetheless recorded his bitterness in his private diary: ‘26-4-91. At 3.00 P.M. today, a gap has appeared in my legislative career for the first time in 34 years. I am feeling extremely dejected.’

In early May, Rao began packing his bags. He hired Roger Removals, moving men for Lutyens’ elite. The workmen, used to lifting weighty assets beyond known sources of income, were grateful that this old man wanted no furniture or decorations moved.

What he was fussy about were books, thousands upon thousands of them. Rao made the workmen reopen already sealed boxes to ensure that his books were carted away correctly categorized. The only other objects that Rao was particular about was his computer and printer models, companions for seven years now. Hardware and hardbound were transported in forty-five cartons to a large truck, which was then driven 1500 kilometres to Hyderabad, into the attic of his second son Rajeshwara’s house. The departure of his books from Delhi depressed Rao. A bureaucrat friend who doubled up as an amateur astrologer tried to lift his spirits. ‘Leave them here. I predict you are coming back.’

Books were central to Rao’s retirement plans. In Hyderabad, he spent hours holed up in a book-lined room, typing away on his beloved computer. He was adding colour to the outline of a novel he had first drawn up in 1973, when, freshly deposed as the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, he was living in political wilderness. When Rao was drawn back into national politics in late 1974, he abandoned the novel. Now, out of the political scene once again—cynical once again—Rao began adding flesh to those buried bones.

Rao also used his time to rent an apartment in Bombay, since the possible Rajya Sabha seat from Maharashtra would require proof of residency. To confirm to himself where he belonged, Rao sent fifteen cartons of books—recently moved to Hyderabad from Delhi—to his new home in Bombay.

While a part of Rao was hankering after the temporal sinecures of fading leaders, another part was contemplating deeper engagement with the divine. When the Courtallam monastery had first offered Rao the post of head monk in 1990, he had put it off. But now, with few prospects for real power or influence, the life of a monk seemed apposite. He wrote to the monastery indicating that he was considering accepting.

In the run-up to the elections on 20 May, Rao flitted in and out of Delhi, listlessly campaigning for the Congress. On 11 May, his appointment diary shows that he was in Delhi, doing a ‘radio recording for Congress party’. His speech was soporific, even by the anodyne standards that Rao set himself. He made no mention of the economic crisis engulfing India or the troubles of her foul-weather friend, the Soviet Union. Instead, he mouthed the platitudes of Congress socialism, promising that if they won the coming elections: ‘[The] Eighth Five Year Plan will be finalized . . . The welfare of kisans, khet mazdoors and workers will continue to be the main concern.’ On 16 May, he left again for Hyderabad on the state-owned Indian Airlines. Taking off at 6 p.m., Rao was flying into the sunset.

Indian national elections are always historic. Each iteration is the largest in the world. The 1991 election was no different: 262 million men and 237 million women were on the electoral rolls, 58 per cent of whom eventually cast their vote in 5,76,353 polling booths across the country. Because it is hard to simultaneously conduct and protect elections all over the country, they are divided into phases, allowing officials and security men to move from hill to valley to plains. The 1991 elections were divided into three phases. It still turned out to be one of the most violent in Indian history, and voting had to be postponed in the militancy-hit states of Kashmir and Punjab.

On the morning of the first phase, Narasimha Rao left for his old constituency in Maharashtra, for the awkward task of campaigning for his replacement as Congress candidate from Ramtek.

The next day, 21 May 1991, Rao woke up at the residence of a local, one Prabhakar Kamble. Rao’s appointment diary shows that he left to campaign in nearby Parbhani and Mansar, had lunch at a local engineering college, answered questions in fluent Marathi for a local newspaper, and spoke at a few more public meetings. He returned to Nagpur to have dinner at the house of a local benefactor at 9 p.m., exhausted. Dinner done, Rao made his way to the house of Congress leader N.K.P. Salve to spend the night. Rao had opted out of a Lok Sabha ticket to avoid the strain of campaigning for himself. But here he was, canvassing hard for someone else.

At the exact time that Rao was leaving from dinner in Nagpur, Rajiv Gandhi was at a campaign stop in Sriperumbudur in Tamil Nadu, 1162 kilometres away. Rajiv, whose mother had been killed by separatists, had only a few guards to protect him. At 10.21 p.m., a young Sri Lankan Tamil woman mingled with the Congress supporters swarming around Rajiv. She was a member of the LTTE, and the terrorist group was worried that Rajiv Gandhi would send back Indian troops to northern Sri Lanka if re-elected prime minister. As she approached the son and grandson of prime ministers, and a prime minister in his own right, she bent down to touch his feet, detonating the explosives strapped to her belt.

Narasimha Rao had just entered his bedroom when he was told that Rajiv Gandhi and fourteen others had been killed by a suicide bomber. Rajiv’s body had been blown to such shreds that the police were struggling to identify the pieces. Rao recorded his reaction in a terse diary entry: ‘. . . Just when I was preparing to retire for the night, this news came . . . I was perhaps not looking too well, so they called the doctor for a check-up. However, I was feeling all right and had taken the shock reasonably well. Anyhow, I tried to sleep for a while, but could hardly sleep for about two hours.’

A few hours later, the sun barely up, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, grandson to Mohandas Gandhi and C. Rajagopalachari, was woken up in Delhi by a trunk call. A bureaucrat, Gandhi was at the time joint secretary to the President, R. Venkataraman, and had already heard of Rajiv’s death. ‘Gopal, what has happened?’ lamented Narasimha Rao from Nagpur airport, in Hindi. ‘Itihaas ne karwat badal di hai,’ replied Gopal. ‘History has shifted itself.’