Things may go wrong even when they’re in the most capable hands. PV Narsimha Rao was the first Prime Minister from South India. He was a scholar-intellectual and a polyglot who could speak as many as seventeen languages, including six languages in which he was fluent. He was often referred to as the modern day Chanakya and the father of economic reforms in India who saved the nation from imminent economic collapse.
However, the damage caused to the already declining image of his Party during his Prime Ministership was immeasurable. His tenure would also be remembered for the rise and strengthening of right wing politics in India which eventually paved way for the BJP to assume power in the times to come.
At the time of writing this chapter, former diplomat and veteran Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar, just launched his autobiographical work – “Memoirs of A Maverick : The First Fifty Years (1941–1991).” Speaking to Vir Sanghvi (The Print) during the book launch on August 23, 2023, Mani Shankar Aiyar, who is known for his blunt remarks, described PV Narsimha Rao as “the first BJP Prime Minister of India.” I am quoting the relevant part of the conversation verbatim as follows :
“…I discovered how communal, how Hindu oriented PV Narsimha Rao was and it foreshadowed how he would be sitting doing puja while the Babri Masjid was brought down. It also foreshadowed PV Narsimha Rao calling me in from my Ram-Rahim Yatra which is described in Vol.2 of my memoire and saying to me, “I have no objection to your Yatra, but I disagree with your definition of secularism”. So I asked Narsimha Rao what’s wrong with my definition of secularism. He said, “Mani, you don’t seem to understand that this is a Hindu country. I sat up in my chair and I said, “That’s exactly what BJP says”. So, in fact, the first BJP Prime Minister of India was not Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The first BJP Prime Minister was Narsimha Rao.
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The 1996 Lok Sabha Elections resulted in a hung Parliament with BJP emerging as the single largest party with 161 seats. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was invited to form the government who sworn in as the 10th Prime Minister of India on 16th May 1996. However, Vajpayee could not muster enough support to form the Government and tendered his resignation on the 16th day of his Prime Ministership on 1st June 1996, even before voting on the confidence motion could take place on the floor of the House.
The President then invited HD Deve Gowda of the United Front, a coalition of regional parties, to form the Government. Deve Gowda, who had the outside support of Congress, became the 11th Prime Minister of India. In less than a year, however, Congress withdrew its support to the Deve Gowda government (in April 1997) citing that the PM was not consulting them on key issues.
After Deve Gowda resigned, Congress extended its outside support to the next United Front Government led by Inder Kumar Gujral, whose tenure too lasted for just about a year. This time the support was withdrawn for Government’s inability to take action against its alliance partners, namely, Lalu Prasad Yadav, the then Chief Minister of Bihar, for his alleged involvement in multi-crore fodder scam (popularly known as चारा घोटाला) and against Karunanidhi led DMK for its alleged links with LTTE, whose cadres killed the former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
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Mid-term Elections were held in February 1998 and the BJP again emerged as the single largest party, this time with 182 seats. Several political parties joined the BJP led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) under the leadership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
This time Vajpayee government lasted for 13 months till withdrawal of support by J. Jayalalithaa led AIADMK, which backed the demand of the Opposition for a Parliamentary Inquiry into the sacking of the Naval Chief Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat by the Defence Minister George Fernandes, allegedly for ‘defiance of civilian authority’. Vajpayee government rejected the demand of the Opposition, which led to withdrawal of support by AIADMK.
The government lost the Confidence Motion in Lok Sabha by a single vote on 17th April 1999 and thus ended Vajpayee’s brief but eventful second stint as Prime Minister of India. With no other party/alliance able to come up with the required numbers to form a new government, the Lok Sabha was dissolved and fresh elections were held.
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The General Elections of 1999 saw the BJP led NDA winning majority in Lok Sabha and formation of a stable government at the Centre. Atal Bihari Vajpayee got the opportunity to set the record of being the first non-Congress Prime Minister of India to serve a full five-year term.