This month marks the tenth death anniversary of a carefully forgotten political leader who has had an important hand in shaping the India of today.

Pamulaparti Venkata Narasimha Rao, PV to those who knew him well, was India’s prime minister from 1991 to 1996. A lawyer-turned-politician from the Karim Nagar district of the Telengana region, PV was a freedom fighter and life-long congressman. Together with his finance minister, Manmohan Singh, then a non-political economist, PV was the architect of India’s economic liberalization that has shaped India’s history since that time.

PV came to power under unusual circumstances after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991. Rajiv had himself come to power in a landslide victory when his mother, Indira Gandhi, was assassinated in 1984. Rajiv’s government, which began the process of India’s modern reforms, lost power in 1989 in the wake of corruption allegations following the Bofors gun scandal. The Congress was on its way to losing the 1991 elections as well, when Rajiv’s assassination reversed the trend. The result was PV as prime minister leading a Congress party with 244 seats in parliament and a minority government supported by some parties from the left. PV thus became India’s first PM from the South and the first at that time from the non-Gandhi family to eventually complete a full five years as PM. When PV died in 2004, he did not receive a state funeral and had to be flown to Hyderabad for cremation as a face-saving alternative arranged by then Andhra Pradesh chief minister Rajasekhar Reddy.

The adoption of historically important figures as symbols is neither new nor uniquely Indian. In China, Deng Xiaoping, himself the architect of Modern China, carefully built his reform platform under the posthumous figurehead of Mao Zedong. Despite having been banished twice by Mao during the Cultural Revolution, Deng specifically cultivated the Mao imagery. Even as he set about deconstructing Mao’s state, he ensured that Mao’s giant portrait in Tiananmen Square, literally and metaphorically, remained where it was. In Turkey, the military governed over a republican Turkey for many decades under the watchful umbrella of Mustafa Kemal Attaturk. For a time, Anwar al-Sadat used Gamal Abdel Nasser as a symbol of unified Egypt. Nasser’s portrait was raised as a symbol of pan-Arab dignity during the recent Arab Spring revolutions.

Independent India has seen the widespread symbolism of Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru as the torchbearers of national values. Of late, the capture of history has been fought over Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. Like Nehru and Gandhi, Patel was a freedom fighter and towering leader. Rajmohan Gandhi, who has written an excellent biography of Sardar Patel, says, “the establishment of independent India derived legitimacy and power, broadly speaking, from the exertions of three men, Gandhi, Nehru and Patel. But while its acknowledgements are fulsome in the case of Nehru and dutiful in the case Gandhi, they are niggardly in the case of Patel". Prime Minister Narendra Modi has opportunistically seized this vacuum.

It is often said that this capture of a historically important figure is about the past. This is a rather limited view. It is done to help with the future—most often to keep a nation united or to appeal to a certain large constituency. The use of Mao, Nasser, Attaturk and Gandhi fully illustrate the power of this technique. To be useful as a political talisman for the future typically requires four things: 1) the person should have done something remarkable for the country, 2) the doing should most likely have been at a moment of great flux, 3) the person should represent unification of a state or a large category of people and 4) the person, the contribution and the moment have to be carefully nurtured as political symbols.

PV passes items 1 and 2 of this test with flying colours. Two weeks from default on its obligations, PV provided the political resolve and cover to enact historic economic change. As a Sanskrit scholar (in addition to several Indian languages, PV spoke English, French, Arabic, Spanish and Persian), Brahmin and politician from Telangana, PV passes requirement 3 of the test rather weakly. He was much too young to be a major leader during the independence movement. And on test 4, he fails badly, because he falls between the cracks of a Nehru-family dominated Congress and a wide-base Hindu nationalist idea represented by Narendra Modi.

Despite his many failings, PV’s contributions to India are the most remarkable and positive of any politician since independence. PV, and another forgotten congressman Rajagopala Chari, represent the idea of a liberal, plural, republican India; a country that is proud of its past, believes philosophically in openness and has its objectives set firmly on the future. When and if PV becomes a symbol, we will know we are on that path.

P.S. “Nothing is as important as solace to renew hope for this ancient, large and complex country" said PV in a must see “Walk the Talk" encounter with Shekhar Gupta.

Narayan Ramachandran is chairman, InKlude Labs.

Comments are welcome at narayan@livemint.com. To read Narayan Ramachandran’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/avisiblehand

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