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Book Review: Clashing Historical Narratives, From Rajiv Gandhi to Narendra Modi

Parsa Venkateshwar Rao's book, 'Rajiv Gandhi to Narendra Modi: Broken Polity, Flickering Reforms', debunks several myths that have pervaded the Indian psyche.

The three decades between 1984 and 2014 was an extraordinary period in Indian history, as the country left the past behind and embraced the future.

The two prime ministers fencing this era on both sides – Rajiv Gandhi and Narendra Modi – although dramatically dissimilar in their social upbringings and political orientations, represented the ‘new’ India – a phrase now used by the latter as if he has a monopoly over the ushering in of reforms and newness in the country.

Although Gandhi was born in 1944, six years prior to Modi, both are the quintessential ‘post-midnight’ children. Like Modi, Gandhi’s eyes and ears opened in an independent India and he, too, was not encumbered by past memories and previous benchmarks.

After 2014, it was claimed by Modi bhakts that he was the first prime minister to be born after independence, but he squandered this marginal head start with his backward-looking ideology.

In fact, despite his lapses and inadequacies, Rajiv Gandhi had a socially forward-looking vision in contrast to Modi, who has done precious little apart from harping on culture, tradition and the ‘Indian ethos’ to justify physical and verbal attacks on fellow Indians who use a different prism to view politics and society.

Also Read: Past Continuous: Will Modi’s 2014 Mandate Be Wasted, Like Rajiv Gandhi’s 1984 One?

Gandhi’s modernist outlook – which possibly enabled him to usher in India’s communication and computer revolutions – also made him the first one to talk about preparing the nation for the 21st century. This was particularly paradoxical because he rode to office by creating a majoritarian scare – of borders shrinking to citizens’ doorsteps.

Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr
Rajiv Gandhi to Narendra Modi: Broken Polity, Flickering Reforms
Sage, 2019

In contrast, Modi entered office, as Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr notes in Rajiv Gandhi to Narendra Modi: Broken Polity, Flickering Reforms, on the promise of development and change, and yet went back to what remained in his heart – a malicious ideology which turns people against people and fosters prejudice as a political tool.

Historical overview

This book is, in some ways, a history of this period. Because it draws heavily from ‘official’ sources – parliamentary debates, party documents, budget speeches and of course government reports – there is a greater authenticity in the narrative. It also brings out, as the author appropriately writes, “the unnoticed details of the unfolding of history.”

It is an instance of a reporter looking back at the years of reportage and analysis, but while paying attention to sources which may either have been missed or glossed over in real time due to pressing deadlines. The result is an invaluable reference book which can also serve as a useful source for writers in the future.

Rao rightly argues that “majoritarianism cannot hold India”. The desperation of the present regime is evident in the direction that has been given to its electoral campaign. An interesting argument is put forth on why the BJP appears to be faltering in its efforts to foster populist nationalism within the electoral narrative. The author contends that the “Modi rhetoric of nationalist glory sounds vainglorious because it lacks inner harmony.”

In the chapter on economic liberalisation, the author questions the conventional wisdom of viewing P.V. Narasimha Rao as the premier who fathered the reforms, with Manmohan Singh at the helm of the process. He disagrees with the view pushed forward in recent years that Rao has been denied the ‘credit’ that was ‘due’ to him because he was not ‘family’.

Also Read: Modi Could Take a Leaf out of Narasimha Rao’s Book on Statesmanship

The reality, according to the book, was Rao did not believe or disbelieve in economic reforms. “He implemented them as he found it was necessary to do so.” In effect, this suggests Rao was not the visionary he is often made out to be. It is wrongly argued, says the author, that Rao and his role in reforming the Indian economy are not celebrated because it would have necessitated acknowledging that others in the party too, and not just the Nehru-Gandhi family, had the capacity to formulate watershed policies.

The author is also not particularly kind to Rao over his handling of events leading up to the demolition of the Babri Masjid. The book cites a Congress Working Committee resolution of July 1992, making it clear that even though there was consensus within the party that the “centre must take strong action and maintain its secular image” and that “it was left to the prime minister to decide about the nature and time of action,” the Rao government continued sleepwalking till the disputed structure was demolished.

The Vajpayee years

The book criticises the BJP too, by pointing out that A.B. Vajpayee had informed the Lok Sabha on the eve of the demolition that the UP government (Kalyan Singh was the chief minister) “has given an assurance to the effect that no damage will be allowed to be caused to the disputed structure and it will be totally protected. Therefore, what are the reasons for doubting the assurance of the government of Uttar Pradesh?”

Narendra Modi, A.B. Vajpayee and L.K. Advani. Credit: PTI/Files

Narendra Modi, A.B. Vajpayee and L.K. Advani. Credit: PTI/Files

The author further quotes Vajpayee to demonstrate that he was no “right man in the wrong party” and that his Nehruvianism was a charade: “When Russia occupied Warsaw a church was built there. When Poland became, the first thing it did was demolition of the church….When (Arnold) Toynbee visited India he taunted us that it is possible in India alone where a mosque has been created after demolishing a temple.”

The book, packed with details that lie forgotten, provides a nuanced account of the past that is still in the present. There is possible only one ‘gripe’, if one can call it that, about the book – and that too points to it being true to its purpose.

Also Read: Let Us Not Forget the Glimpse We Got of the Real Vajpayee When the Mask Slipped

In meticulously detailing the sequence of events and assertions made by dramatis personae after the fall of the Vajpayee government in 1999, the reader encounters too much of a ‘researcher’ and less of a ‘writer’.

The author cites the dismissal of the Naval chief, Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat, as the “ostensible reason” for Jayalalithaa’s withdrawal from the government. But what, according to the author, was the ‘real’ reason? Does he believe there is any substance to Subramanian Swamy’s accusation that George Fernandes was pro-LTTE?

Likewise, does the author think there is any substance to the rumours in 2004 that Sonia Gandhi did not assume office because President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam cited an Italian law of having to enact reciprocal legislation to permit Indians settled there to take up high offices? It would have been good to know.

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a Delhi-based writer and journalist, and the author of Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times and Sikhs: The Untold Agony of 1984. He tweets @NilanjanUdwin.