Long before the Bharat Ratna, a fight for PV Narasimha Rao’s identity

Narasimha Rao’s son Prabhakar Rao is heard saying that his family wanted the cremation in Delhi because it was PVNR’s 'Karma Bhoomi'.

ByV V P Sharma

Published Feb 11, 2024 | 10:00 AM Updated Feb 11, 2024 | 10:00 AM

PV Narasimha Rao has been awarded the Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian honour in India.

The Bharat Ratna to former prime minister PV Narasimha Rao revives an embarrassing chapter the Congress party never tires forgetting.

It’s about how his party insulted him twice. The first time, when he was alive, to the criticism of having “failed” to prevent the demolition of the Babri Masjid. The second time, when he died, disallowing him to be cremated in Delhi.

It is also an uncanny coincidence that Prime Minister Narendra Modi conferred the Bharat Ratna on PVNR days after he awarded it to LK Advani, whose strong religious rhetoric provoked the demolition of the mosque, which the Congress told Rao he could not save.

By the time he passed away in December 2004, his isolation was complete. Congress leaders stopped visiting him. He shrunk under the weight of the demolition demon. The party also parked its electoral defeat in 1996 at his door.

So much so, on the day he died, the party was intent on his traces from Delhi being removed forthwith.

Also Read: Unraveling the political tapestry behind the 5 Bharat Ratnas, India’s highest honor

PV Narasimha Rao’s death

An eight-part video documentary, PV: Change and Continuity, from the Telangana Sahitya Akademi under the Department of Language and Culture, brings to life what happened in the hours immediately after Rao’s death on 23 December, 2004.

The story unfolds through recollections by prominent personalities who knew PV Narasimha Rao, and witnessed or were aware of what happened that day.

The first episode, Karma Bhoomi, begins with Sanjaya Baru, journalist and then media advisor to prime minister Manmohan Singh, saying, “When the news came, I was in Parliament with the prime minister. He said ‘I will go immediately to see the body’. Then, he drove down.”

Singh and Baru reached PVNR’s house. Baru recalls in the video that he had not looked at his body before Ahmed Patel pulled him aside. “He said ‘There is a problem. Can you help?’ He said that the cremation has to be done, and the party feels the cremation should be done in Hyderabad. You know some family members; why don’t you talk to them.”

Baru says that he did not tell anybody anything. PV Narasimha Rao’s son Prabhakar Rao is heard saying his family wanted the cremation in Delhi because it was PVNR’s “Karma Bhoomi”. Narasimha Rao used to say, “he felt more comfortable in Delhi than in Hyderabad”.

That was when Andhra Pradesh chief minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy arrived. Prabhakar Rao says, “He arrived around 5:30 pm, and he started repeating whatever he told me on the phone. He said that the body should be taken to Hyderabad. He started telling my brothers. He said all that and left.”

How did the family react? The son answers, “It looked like an orchestrated affair.”

Baru summarises, “Shivraj Patil and Rajasekhara Reddy put pressure on the family. And the family agreed. So, I guess if both the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh and home minister of India put pressure on you…anyway, the family agreed.”

It was 10 pm by then, and necessary arrangements were being made. Prabhakar Rao says, in the video, the prime minister “came out…in his night dress….assured us that a memorial would definitely be made in Delhi.”

The following morning, the body was placed on a cortège. Prabhakar Rao thought, “The body would be taken to AICC headquarters.” They arrived at the headquarters. Somebody said the cortège was too big to pass through the gates. So, it was parked by the kerb.

Eventually, it made its way to the airport and, from there, to Hyderabad.

‘Humiliation’, ‘pity’, ‘insult’

Political economist and close aide of PV Narasimha Rao, Parakala Prabhakar, gives examples to say that PVNR was “wedded to Congressism”. He explains the irony. “….quintessential Congressman he was. After his death, his body was not allowed to enter the Congress headquarters. That was the humiliation.”

Diplomat and former foreign minister Natwar Singh agrees, “It was not nice at all. He used to live opposite her (Sonia Gandhi). The body was not taken inside the AICC. The body was in a truck, and hardly anybody to see him off. In Hyderabad, 6-7 lakh people came for his cremation.”

There was more to come. Prabhakar Rao says his sister called him the night of the cremation. She was agitated because on TV, “they were showing some very disturbing visuals of a half-burnt body and some stray dogs loitering around”. He was referring to his father’s body.

At this point, the documentary issues a caution, “The footage of a half-burnt body is extremely distressing to be shown.”

Ramachandra Murthy, journalist and former Public Policy Advisor to the Andhra Pradesh government, says, “He was insulted when he was not allowed to enter AICC or when his body was left half burnt. Nobody cared. That is the pity.”

There was no PV Narasimha Rao memorial in Delhi until the UPA remained in power. The PV Memorial Ghat at the Rashtriya Smriti in Delhi came up only in 2015.

Baru says, “During the 10 years of UPA, Congress named a road in Delhi after Rajesh Pilot, Madhavrao Scindia, Arjun Singh, and so many other Congress leaders, but not Narasimha Rao.”

As the episode concludes, Dr Jaya Prakash Narayana, Founder of Lok Satta Party, is heard saying, “Instead of embracing Narasimha Rao’s worth, who was a great prime minister and who transformed India, and continuing his unfinished agenda, they disowned his work, they discredited him, they humiliated him during his life, they humiliated him after his death.”