Enormous faith is reposed by all sorts of people (including lazy journalists) in the presumed capacity of Rahul Gandhi to revive the Congress and bring sparkle to its government in the Centre. What the Congress really needs is P.V.Narasimha Rao, but such a politician-statesman is not available in the party, nor will conditions ever permit such a phenomenal prime minister to take charge in a dynastic formation. The only hope is for a big-ideas man to head an NDA government and return the country to the path of growth, equity and greatness.

When India slumped after the fall of the Rajiv Gandhi government, a feeling grew that the Centre wouldn't hold. That feeling was present here in the capital but somehow it was more pronounced in the peripheries of the country, in states like Jammu and Kashmir, where this writer went as a reporter. The Soviet Union had fled Afghanistan and broken up and the same fate was expected of India, which was the key impulse behind Pakistan's support of insurgency and terrorism in J and K. A prime minister like V.P.Singh had given up on the state until the army took a decisive stand and reversed the azadi tide.

So disgusted was the country with the second Janata government (made worse by Mandal quotas) that change was in the air. Since the BJP was still a party in the making, it was expected and anticipated that the Congress w0uld return to power. There wasn't much enthusiasm that Rajiv Gandhi would become PM (the Bofors scandal was still alive in public memory), but V.P.Singh had so lowered the bar that anyone would outshine him. So when, by a quirk of fate, Narasimha Rao came to occupy the corner office, people were neither happy nor sad. They had no opinion of Rao because he wasn't a very public man. But they expected him not to mess up things further.

Much has been written currently about how Narasimha Rao was the real architect of the 1991 reforms, and that he was the driving force behind Manmohan Singh. This is obviously true. But what is less appreciated is that Narasimha Rao brought the country intact out of the disastrous fallouts of the Soviet collapse, crafted the Israeli arms' supply lifeline with subterfuge, saved the situation in J and K and Punjab where electoral order was restored, brought the Centre into preeminence once more, and of course unleashed the entrepreneurial energies of the country. It was frequently remarked about Narasimha Rao that he had made politics "boring". That was because the country was back on rails and there was no front (except the 6 December incident) where he could be attacked. L.K.Advani called him one of India's best prime ministers.

Why did Narasimha Rao succeed? Because he didn't have Sonia Gandhi on his back. A Machiavelli, he had reduced 10 Janpath to the status of a minor shareholder in the Congress's fortunes. A man of immense intellect and a political and strategic schemer of the first order, he led from the front as prime minister without making it very apparent. He shared A.B.Vajpayee's trait of being a man of few words, he was far from being convivial with the press, but he knew what to do, and he went about doing it methodically and unemotionally. Opening up about his prime-ministership with this writer, he gave insights into his thinking which were brilliant. He was the PM to be able to snatch victory out of the jaws of defeat, and he did it time and again.

Cast your eyes on the present lot of Congress leaders, and not one of them measures up to the genius of Narasimha Rao. Pranab Mukherjee? No. He reached his level of incompetence as finance minister. Among the younger politicians, the only one to show promise is Jairam Ramesh, who this writer and this magazine consider first-rate, the best minister in UPA-2. But he has a long way to go, and he lacks in the experience that comes from fighting and winning Lok Sabha elections term after term. After Manmohan Singh, the country is fed up of Rajya Sabha prime ministers.

And there lies the tragedy for the Congress mentioned earlier. Because Narasimha Rao was so successful and had so thoroughly sidelined 10 Janpath, the Nehru-Gandhis will not permit another one of his brilliance, sagacity and independence to become prime minister. It is not enough to describe Narasimha Rao as a successful Congress PM. He was the most successful non-Nehru-Gandhi prime minister, and he was partly successful because he kept the Congress's first family at arm's length. Till 10 Janpath is powerful, Narasimha Rao II can never hope to happen again.

But the examples of Narasimha Rao and A.B.Vajpayee can provide guiding light to a future non-Congress prime minister, who will have to come with big ideas for the country. Those big ideas must be steeped in moderation and humility, where the poor, the tribals and the salaried classes are not forced to make more sacrifices that they already have, and a culture and ethos of honest and straight-forward wealth creation is enabled, honoured and appreciated. None of that can happen in the present extortionate climate, and the change represented by Narasimha Rao and his dear friend, Vajpayee, could conceivably power a non-UPA future.