By Swapan Dasgupta
In Alan Bennett's celebrated play 'Forty Years On', there is an amusing but poignant scene centred on the trial of Neville Chamberlain by the 'Court of History'. This court, the presiding judge informs the disoriented accused, is "not a 'Court of Justice'. We judge solely by appearances, and i don't like yours." In a court where the presentation of evidence follows the sentencing, Chamberlain is held guilty for his failure to recognise that Hitler was a "patent scallywag". He is handed out a two-word sentence: "Perpetual ignominy".
There may be unintended similarities between the procedural quirkiness of Bennett's 'Court of Justice', particularly its decision to ''judge solely by appearances'', and the lack of rigour that marked Justice M S Liberhan's pronouncements on the demolition in Ayodhya 17 years ago. Quite predictably, and not least because he converted a three-month contract into a 17 year pension, Liberhan has been mercilessly pilloried and ridiculed by both the political class and the media. What should have been the definitive post-mortem report of an event that left India both shaken and stirred, ended up resembling the shoddy dissertation of a plodder in a C-grade university.
The disservice that Liberhan has done to the standing of the judiciary is incalculable. But equally galling has been his role in disfiguring the public perception of the past. Since a great deal of the Liberhan report is clouded in sweeping generalisations, inconsistencies, factual inaccuracies, purple prose and plain howlers, the inclination to rubbish everything in the 1,000-page offering has proved irresistible to the political and editorial classes.
The prime collateral casualty of the rubbishing of Liberhan report has been former prime minister P V Narasimha Rao. Whether out of a sense of gratitude to the man who facilitated a most agreeable superannuation or a desire to not displease the Congress Party, Liberhan was excessively understanding of Rao's compulsions and whitewashed his role with embarrassing cravenness -- a generosity he didn't extend to the other side.
Understandably, this partiality has provoked a backlash. In a fortnight of public debate, the role of Rao has been put under a partisan scanner. He has been painted either as a blundering fool who preferred his afternoon siesta to matters of state or a closet communalist who worked in tandem with the RSS. Even the Congress, which he served with great distinction, has been hesitant to come to his defence. Rahul Gandhi's facile observation that the Babri Masjid would have been intact had a Gandhi been at the helm has become the new correctness.
The transformation of Rao into a latter-day Chamberlain does a grave injustice to someone who, until the 1996 election, was seen as both a visionary and an amoral Chanakya. Interestingly, this was the case even after the demolition when the chattering classes went ballistic over the "perfidy" of the RSS and BJP. When, contrary to the triumphalism of its campaign -- "aaj panch Pradesh, kal sara desh" -- the BJP was defeated in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh in the 1993 assembly elections, Rao was hailed as the man who rolled back the tide of Hindutva.
The Congress also celebrated Rao's astonishing ability to quietly secure a majority for a government that had been sworn in as a fragile minority government in 1991. Today, the bribery of Jharkhand Mukti Morcha MPs by the ruling party is viewed as an inglorious chapter in India's parliamentary democracy. At that time, Rao was feted for his political management, just as Manmohan Singh was in 2008 after winning the Trust vote in equally controversial circumstances. Politicians love winners and, until the 1996 debacle, Rao was seen as a winner.
There are obvious pitfalls in viewing the past through the prism of the present. Just as Chamberlain returned from Munich as a folk hero for averting a war few people wanted, Rao frustrated the BJP by denying it the privilege of a frontal conflict against "pseudo-secularism". The extent to which Rao exasperated his opponents by, first, opening up avenues of middle-class enrichment through economic liberalisation, and, subsequently, opening independent lines of communication with Hindu sadhus involved in the temple agitation, has not been sufficiently appreciated. Rao calculated that his "soft Hindutva" would undermine BJP designs of emerging as the sole custodian of Hindu interests, keep the Congress in the political game and somehow reduce the emotional polarisation. It was a high-risk strategy that was undone because a section of the VHP understood his game and wilfully jumped the gun on December 6.
Rao miscalculated the dangers of brinkmanship. But what if he had succeeded? Wouldn't the 'Court of History' have honoured him as a great prime minister who had the courage to take India along a different, non-Nehruvian trajectory?