After Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1991, people had sympathy of for the Congress Party and P.V. Nrasimha Rao, the leader of the ruling Congress Party, became prime minister. He abandoned his plan to retire from politics and was originally selected as a stop-gap leader but ended up serving five years from 1991 to 1996. Rao was praised from initiating market reforms in 1991 and was prime mister while Hindus and Muslims fought over the Ayodhya mosque. His government was ultimately toppled in part by numerous corruption charges.

Rao was regarded as an astute politician and known for his off-putting expressions and dour demeanor. He had both critics and supporters. One scholar said, "he is probably going to get a better judgement out of history than any other prime minister. What he has done is change Indian more in two and a half years than in the previous 35 years." One Southeast Asian leader called him the Deng Xiaoping of India. Perhaps the great tragedy of Rao years as prime minister was allowing the destruction of the Ayodhya mosque to take place.

Rao was born in 1921 in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh and was loyal to the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty throughout his career. His native language was Telugu but he also spoke Hinduism Urdu, English, Spanish and Sanskrit. He was involved in the independence struggle, was a member of the state legislature for 20 years and was elected to Parliament in 1977. Beginning in 1980 he served in a number of cabinet positions, including Minister of External Affairs, Homes Affairs, Defence, Human Resources and Health and Family Welfare. He served as Foreign Minister under both Indira and Rajiv Gandhi. He died in 2004.

Economy Under Rao

Rao came into office in 1991 when India was in the middle of an economic crisis. The government borrowed heavily to stay afloat, its foreign reserves dwindled to $1 billion, enough to last maybe two weeks, the nation was on the verge of defaulting on foreign loans, inflation was in the double digits, and international creditors demanded budgetary and fiscal reforms before they would give India more money.

Rao named an obscure University Grants Commission member named Manmohan Singh as his finance minister. Serving as finance minister from 1991 to 1996, Singh dismantled 45 years of socialist policies and helped Rao pass a number of economic reforms.

Rao was not so much a free market advocate as a pragmatist responding a country in crisis. Singh was inspired by the moves made in Taiwan and South Korea in the 1980s. He said the reforms would entail hardship and told Indians it would take three years of “blood, sweat and tears.”

Rao's Economic Reforms

The Indian economy began opening up under Rajiv Gandhi in the mid-1980s, when the government moved away from socialism and began implemented market reforms and welcoming foreign investment. Economic reforms began in earnest in 1991 under Rao and Singh.

Rao and Singh came up with an ambitious plan to reform and liberalize the economy that involved reducing government control over businesses, dismantling of the "license raj" of red tape, devaluing and floating the Indian currency to encourage exports, allowing private sector banking, simplifing taxes, lowering tariffs and easing restrictions to encourage foreign investment, opening capital markets, encouraging entrepreneurship. The 850-page book of trade restitutions was slashed to 87 pages. Singh joked that Indian Airlines hated him because they lost business from all the businessmen who used to fly to Delhi to get licenses.

The reforms were enacted because Indian teetered on the edge of bankruptcy and had few other choices. Under Singh’s guidance growth increased,, inflation was cut in half, foreign reserves were rebuilt The economic reforms spurred economic growth, saved the country from bankruptcy. Singh was called the “liberator” and was named Prime Minister of India.

A second wave of economic reforms began in 1994, when the rupee was made fully convertible. In 1997, India opened up to international trade, corporate tax rates were lowered from 43 percent to 35 percent and top-bracket tax rates were reduced from 40 percent to 30 percent. There was some resistance to reforms based on fear that foreign trade and investment would become a new form of colonialism.

Rao's Fecklessness

Rao's government was notorious for its weakness, which some political analysts regarded as not necessarily a bad thing. Rao once said that he wanted to be remembered for what he called "masterly inactivity." Rao was described as "a chronic ditherer" and a "master of inactivity." Pundits called him "uninspired, taciturn and unimaginative," and said he "raised dullness to an art." One critic said, "Basically, he does not act in time, and sometimes does not act at all." Defending his indecisiveness, said Rao said in May 1996, , "When I don't take a decision, it's not that I don't think about it. I think about it and take a decision not to take a decision."

When he was prime minister Rao was widower who had survived triple-bypass heart surgery. In 1995, the magazine Outlook excerpted segments of steamy novel written by Rao in his free time. In one scene, Rao wrote: "Their bodies, like strangers meeting for the first time, introduced themselves to each other." In another also wrote "Many had—or thought they had—hoodwinked Gandhi by wearing short loincloths" while in reality they were having sex with "any woman who came their way.”

Rao Scandals

Former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao and several members of his cabinet were charged with financial improprieties and selling favors in the $18 million "hawala" money laundering scandal in which money given to 100 politicians, civil servants and businessmen whose names were recorded in a diary and files of Surendra Kumar Jain, a businessman famous for his lavish parties at his palatial 10-acre estate.

One of the central figures in Rao's scandals was Chandraswami, a flamboyant guru who partied with the sultan of Brunei and arms dealer Adnan Khashoggo and claimed to have cured Elizabeth Taylor's bad back with a special potion. Although he claimed to be a celibate vegetarian Chandraswami enjoyed material pleasures. He mediated on a tiger skin in a marble palace with gold prayer beads in his hands.

Chandraswami was credited with devising potions to protect Indira Gandhi from her enemies. He acted like a court astrologer for Gandhi's government, reading palms, mixing traditional medicines and telling fortunes to influential people in her government like Rao. Chandraswami ended up on 6-x-8 prison from reportedly swindling a businessman out of $100,000 after Rao had vouched for him.

Scandals and perceived insensitivity towards the poor caused the defeat of Rao and the Congress Party in elections in 1996. Rao lost in a general election in May 1996. After leaving office he wrote an autobiographical novel called “The Insider” and was arrested for fraud. Rao and several members of his cabinet were charged with financial improprieties. In 1996, Rao was put on trial for forgery and financial improprieties. He was acquitted in the early 2000s.

Decline of the Indian Congress Party and Rise of the Hindu Nationalists

The Indian Congress Party of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Indira Gandhi dominated politics through the first 44 years of Indian independence. In the 1990s, after Rajiv Gandhi's death, the Indian Congress Party went into a slow but steady decline. Under the leadership of Sitaram Kesri, the Indian Congress Party was divided by factionalism, and ravaged by corruption, cronyism and decay and politicians who thought more about perks and survival than helping the Indian people. The party seemed directionless and comatose without a Gandhi at the helm. Many Congress politicians defected and joined local parties or even the main position BJP party.

Things had gotten so bad the Congress party had to offer free meals to get people to show up at their rallies and the party headquarters was compared to a "Soviet-style Politburo" with politicians who "do nothing but drink tea and eat glee-filled sweets." Before the 1998 midterm elections, analysts worried that Indian Congress Party might retain fewer than 100 seats in the Lok Sabha, the 543-seat lower parliament.

After four decades of being relegated to pariah status, the Hindu nationalists emerged from a obscurity in the 1990s and took power as the as the Indian Congress party declined. The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 1996 even though the BJP won less than 25 percent of the vote. The BJP formed a government that collapsed after only 13 days, when no other party would back them.

United Front Rules India in the Mid 1990s

In 1996 and 1997, India was ruled by the United Front, a coalition of regional, centrist and Communist parties. The first United Front Prime Minister was H.D. Deve Gowda, then I.K. Gujral. The United Front ruled with the support of the Congress Party, which wanted to keep the Hindu nationalists from taking power. United Front rule was marked by political instability. There were five elections in a two year period between March 1996 and March 1998.

H.D. Deve Gowda became the prime minister of India even though he couldn't speak Hindi the national language. When he gave a speech in Hindi, words were written out him for his native Kannada language. He was also famous for dozing off in public. Gowda liked to call himself a humble farmer. His cabinet was made up of many lower caste members. His defense minister came from a backward class of milkmen who paid for his education with money earned from wrestling.

Gurjal was described as too nice, decent, scholarly and soft-spoken to run India. His promises to crack down on corruption, help the poor, address women's rights, and reform the economy were largely unfulfilled. He belonged to the centrist Janata Dal party. Kumar Gurjal held office for only seven months (April to December) in 1997. He was the leader of the left-leaning party in the United Front, which under Gurjal was a coalition of 13 regional, centrist and Communist parties.

The government formed by the United Front resigned in December 1997 after the Congress Party withdrew its support. It suffered from splits within Gujral's party. Seats in 1997: 1) 194 seats for the BJP and its allies: 2) 173 seats for the United Front; 3) 139 seats of the Indian National Congress and its allies; and 4) 39 seats for others.

Election in India in 1998

The election in February and March 1998 was one of the mostly-watched and competitive Indian elections ever. The BJP and its diverse allies of regional parties took 240 of the parliament's 543 seats. This kept them only 22 seats short of a majority, by far the best showing for the Hindu nationalist since Indian independence in 1947. It ended 50 years of Congress rule.

Election results in 1998: 1) 252 seats for the BJP and its allies: 2) 166 seats for the Indian National Congress and its allies; 3) 96 votes of the United Front; 4) and 31 seats for others. Popular vote: 26 percent for the Congress Party, 25 percent for the BJP and 19 percent for the United Front. The BJP formed a coalition by bringing in regional parties such as 12-member Teluga Desam, a 12 member regional party from Andhra Pradesh and other small regional parties.

More than 150 people died in the 1998 election. Around 60 were killed and 200 were injured by 17 bombs that went of in southern city of Coimbatore, shortly after a BJP rally. Members of the BJP blamed Muslim groups. Critics of the BJP, say the bombs may have been set off by groups supporting of the BJP to win sympathy for the party. There were also bomb explosions in Bombay. There was also widespread violence in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Assam.

Election in India in 1999

Another election was called in September and October 1999, the third in as many years, after the BJP coalition lost a no-confidence vote by only one vote in April 1999. The vote was prompted by the departure from the coalition of All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam over the firing of the head of the Indian navy.

The BJP and its diverse allies of 24 region parties won a clear victory and not only managed to hold on to power but was able to forge a stronger government than it had before. The BJP and its allies won 294 seats, well past the number needed for a majority in the 543-seat lower house. In exchange for support, the BJP promised it would not pursue polices that included building a temple on the site of the Ayodhya mosque and altering Muslim rights.

Around 350 were killed in election violence in 1999. On one day alone, 31 people were killed by guerilla-planted mines. In Maharashtra, a candidate with royal blood hacked an opponent to death with a sword. In Assam, separatists shot and killed a BJP candidate who offered to negotiate with the rebels and dumped his body in a rice paddy. In Bihar, Maoists insurgent chopped the hand off a village elder who had been accused of betraying the insurgents. In Kashmir, a BJP candidate was assassinated and a National Congress candidate was attacked twice by gunmen. Others candidates survived rifle shots and land mines. Four people were killed in Andra Pradesh in fights between members or rival parties. [Source: Washington Post]

BJP leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee formed an 11 party coalition called the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). The Bombay Stock Exchange closed at a record high of 5032 points, the first time it had ever closed higher than 5000.

Vajpayee: Nationalist Prime Minister of India

Atal Bihari Vajpayee, head of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), became the prime minister of India in 1996, but ruled only a few weeks, and then became prime minister again in 1998, and ruled until 2004. Described as "a good man in a bad party," he was a popular figure known for having more tolerant views than other members of his party and making the BJP palatable to non-Hindus. Vajpayee was more popular and trusted than the BJP. He said the core views of the BJP are more humanistic than religious and Hinduism provided moral guidance for people of all faiths.

A handsome, silver-haired poet, Vajpayee had a gentle face, raspy voice and mild disposition. Before becoming president he was a long-serving legislator and diplomat, who managed to avoid scandal. He dressed in traditional Indian clothes not Western business suits. Unlike many members of the Hindu faith, he was not a vegetarian or a teetotaler. He enjoyed eating meat and fish and had a drink or two now and again and spent time with Muslim friends. Although he was a bachelor he raised a friend’s daughter.

Vajpayee was rousing and folksy speechmaker known for his wit, timing, humor, references to Hindu folk tales and use of facial expressions and gestures. One writer said his characteristic speeches featured "alarmingly long pauses and flights of lyrical fancy." He drew crowds of 150,000 of or more. Vajpayee considered himself an amateur scholar and enjoyed nothing better than curling up with a good book or writing a poem. He also enjoyed watching Western films. He has said that “Gandhi”, with Ben Kingsley, was one of his favorites.

Vajpayee wasis an enigmatic figure. He was great admirer of Nehru even though he headed a party that opposed Nehru's National Congress Party. He was secularist who called the attack on the mosque in Ayodhya a blunder even though his party had strong anti-secularist views about Muslims. He said he had never used computer even though he was a leader of a high-tech revolution in India.

Vajpayee's Early Life

Vajpayee is a Brahman from Madhya Pradesh. The son of a Brahman schoolteacher, he was born on December 25, 1925. At the age of 16 he was sentenced to prison for taking part in the anti-British "Quit India" movement. He flirted with Communism before joining the Hindu nationalists.

As a teenager Vajpayee joined the ultranationalist National Volunteer Corps (RSS), whose members came from mostly from upper-caste Hindu families, and was not educated in the English system as was the case with Indian National Congress members like Gandhi and Nehru. Vajpayee joined the Jana Sangh, the nationalist precursor of the BJP. From the very beginning he was known more for his friendliness and wit than hard line ideology.

Vajpayee first entered parliament in 1957 and served almost continuously for 40 years. He was regarded as master of tailoring positions to suit different audiences. Vajpayee rose to the leadership of the BJP. He was a foreign minister in a coalition government from 1977 to 1980 and served 13 days as Prime Minister in 1996. He was credited with easing tensions between Pakistan and India during his tenure as prime minister in the early 2000s.

Vajpayee as Prime Minister

Vajpayee was 79 in the last year of his premiership. He suffered from diabetes, which sometimes caused him to look sleepy. He had two artificial knees and his doctors told him to stay off his feet after a flare up of osteoarthritis in his knees caused him considerable pain. When giving a speech he was sometimes carried up to and down from the platform by security men. As his term worn on he looked worn out. Once he couldn’t even remember the name fo his own foreign minister. Concerns about his health were such that Vajpayee was followed around everywhere he went with a doctor, anaesthetist, surgeon and ambulance.

Vajpayee held together an unruly coalition. At one point it was made up of 20 parties. He often joked he could have been a better poet than politician. In the early 2000s, Bollywood director Yash Chopra made a music video around one of Vajpayee poems. It features clips of the Prime Minister walking around and writing at his desk, and had an appearance by the top Bombay actor Shah Rukh Khan. Th video had a pensive tone which matched the mood of the poem : “Kya Khoya Kya Paya” (“What is lost, what is found”).

Vajpayee is remembered most for his relationship with Pakistan and the nuclear bomb. Three weeks after becoming prime minister Vajpayee authorized India’s controversial nuclear bomb tests, which occurred around the same time Pakistan conducted their nuclear test. A friend who was with Vajpayee at the night the test was made told Time, “There was no talk. We had our soup...I didn’t hear about the test until I got to New York. He keeps to himself. He needs no counsel.”

In 1999, about a year after the nuclear test, Vajpayee participated in peace talks with Pakistani leader Nawaz Sharif, culminating with the "Friendship Bus" bus trip across the border from Pakistan to India. He himself rode on the new bus service he inaugurated between India (Amritsar) and Pakistan (Lahore). Once in Pakistan he attended the first summit between India and Pakistan in 10 years,

BJP Softens Up Under Vajpayee, Sort Of

Under Vajpayee, the BJP’s hard-line pro-Hindu positions were softened. Critics of the party wondered if this wasn't just a ploy to make Indians complacent and lower guards, allowing the BJP to go forward with their hard-line agenda once they had the power to do so.

The BJP dropped its demand of building a new Hindu temple in Ayodhya and instead raised funds to build mosques. BJP supporters even helped lay the bricks. During the 1998 election the BJP said it supported building a new Hindu temple in Ayodhya but it had to change its position to form a coalition government and pacify its coalition partners. During Vajpayee’s rule the RSS pursued plans to build a Hindu temple at the site in Ayodya and on at least one occasion Vajpayee said he didn’t object to that policy, which brought cries of betrayal from coalition partners

Under Vajpayee, India pursued friendly relations with Pakistan and welcomed foreign — both of which went against traditional BJP doctrine. Vajpayee’s efforts to make the party more inclusive was successful in attracting educated young people and members of lower castes. However, Vajpayee’s positions on globalization, economic liberalism and improving relations with Pakistan have angered many Hindu nationalists.

The BJP under Vajpayee even won some Muslim supporters. One Muslim in violence-racked Gujarat told the Washington Post, “I think Vajpayee is basically a good man. He calmed the hateful rhetoric between India and Pakistan. He takes a long time to do the right thing, but he eventually does the right thing.” Many of Vajpayee biggest critics were within his own party—some of whom wanted India to take military action against Pakistan.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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