It was November 1996.
The Congress (I) had been defeated in the election. P V Narasimha Rao had lost office as prime minister and unceremoniously ousted from the leadership of the Congress (I). He was being dragged from court to court. There were allegations galore against him -- corruption, nepotism, indecisiveness etc etc. He was literally down on the ground. Brickbats were being thrown at him from all sides.
There was hardly anyone inside the party or outside to defend him, speak well of him and draw attention to all the great things he had done as a member of the Cabinets of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi and as prime minister:
Economic reforms. Throwing open the Indian economy and jettisoning the remnants of his predecessors's socialist policies.
The end of terrorism in Punjab without conceding any of the terrorists' demands. There has been no terrorism in Punjab since 1995.
The successful termination of many hijackings without conceding the terrorists' demands.
His successful crisis management as home minister after Operation Bluestar in June 1984, during which the army raided the Golden Temple at Amritsar to neutralise a group of terrorists, who had taken possession of it.
His refusal to concede the demands of the Kashmiri terrorists, who kidnapped Doraiswamy, an Indian Oil executive, and of the Sikh terrorists, who kidnapped Liviu Radu, a Romanian diplomat posted in New Delhi in October 1991, in order to secure the release from detention of some terrorists. Both the Kashmiri and Sikh terrorists were ultimately forced to release the hostages without their demands being conceded.
His decision in 1992 to bring into the open India's relations with Israel, which had been kept secret since they were first established under Indira Gandhi's orders in 1969 and to permit Israel to open an embassy in New Delhi.
His orders to the intelligence community in 1992 to start a systematic drive to draw the international community's attention to the Pakistan State-sponsorship of terrorism against India and not to be discouraged by the US efforts to undermine the exercise.
His crisis management after the Mumbai blasts of March 12, 1993. He personally visited Mumbai after the blasts and after seeing evidence of the Pakistani hand in the blasts, ordered the intelligence community to invite the intelligence agencies of the US, UK and some other West European countries to send their counter-terrorism experts to Mumbai to see things for themselves. He felt that if they felt convinced about the Pakistani role they would at least tell their leaders even if they did not admit it to India.
His handling, as prime minister, of the occupation of the Hazratbal holy shrine in Jammu and Kashmir by Pakistan-sponsored terrorists in October 1993, and bringing it to an end without any damage to the shrine and of the kidnapping of some foreign tourists by Al Faran in J&K in 1995. He resisted pressure from various quarters to concede the demands of the terrorists in order to secure the hostages' release.
His launching of the 'Look East' foreign policy, which brought India closer to ASEAN.
Even while countering in a determined manner Pakistan's use of terrorism against India, keeping the lines of communications open at various levels. He met Nawaz Sharif, then the Pakistan prime minister between 1990 and 1993, at Davos, Jakarta and Harare and encouraged his officials to keep meeting their Pakistani counterparts to discuss matters of common concern such as smuggling of narcotics, border security etc. However, the meetings at the top political level came to a halt after Benazir Bhutto, who returned to power in 1993, repeatedly spurned his ovedrtures for bilateral talks at the political level.
His decision to maintain a distance from the Dalai Lama in order to avoid aggravating Beijing's suspicions and concerns and his successful overtures to Teheran. The 'cultivate Iran' policy was pushed through vigorously by him. These policies paid rich dividends in March 1994, when Benazir Bhutto's efforts to have a resolution passed by the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva on the human rights situation in Jammu and Kashmir failed for want of support from China and Iran.
As a people, we revel in degrading ourselves, our country, our leaders, our officials. 1996 was a free for all year -- particularly after the publication of the N N Vohra Committee's observations on the alleged links between politicians and criminals. Very few had any good word to say about our political leadership. Politicians were being projected in large sections of the media in the most negative colours.
I felt the urge to defend the political class and Narasimha Rao. I felt that public opinion was unjust to Rao. Of course, there was a negative side to his record. His failure to prevent a Hindu mob from demolishing the Babri Masjid, his proximity to holy men of dubious reputation, the allegations of political corruption against him and personal corruption against a member of his family.
Despite all this, he had more achievements to his credit than any of the post-1989 prime ministers. I wrote an article, which most newspapers would not accept. Ultimately, Business Line of Chennai accepted it and carried it on November 15,1996, under the heading 'In Defence of the Much-Maligned Class.'
I was flooded with letters criticising me, abusing me and questioning my judgement and motive. It was quite depressing. On December 4,1996, I received the following letter from one of the readers of my article: 'Your piece on Narasimha Rao is specially thought-provoking, and I think that you have done a major service by drawing attention to the other side of the coin. Public adulation is notoriously fickle. So, one should not be entirely surprised with what has happened to his reputation now. Quite often, we fail to see the wood for the trees. I am not a great authority on Hinduism, but may I respectfully add that I do not entirely agree with your statement that Hinduism does not teach magnanimity? If anything distinguishes our religion from others, it is the spirit of tolerance. And, to my mind, magnanimity is only an extension of tolerance. In this particular instance, what has come to the forefront is the essential bitchiness of public fame. Perhaps, from the point of view of history, we are living too close to Narasimha Rao's times, to be able to do full justice to him.'
Guess who it was? None other than R N Kao, the founding father of the Research and Analysis Wing, India's external intelligence agency, and a close adviser to Indira Gandhi for many years.
As I read the encomiums that are being showered on Narasimha Rao after his death on December 23,2004 -- in many cases, by the very same people who vied with each other in abusing him in 1996 -- I was reminded of my article and Kao's reaction to it.
It does not require courage and magnanimity to praise a man after he is dead. It requires courage and magnanimity to defend a man when he is still alive and appears to be down and out and becomes the target of unjustified maligning.