Five years ago, the question was whether P.V. Narasimha Rao could lead India. Now, it’s whether the former prime minister will go to jail.
He has fallen from revered statesman to what some would say symbolizes all that is rotten in Indian politics.
Rao became prime minister in 1991 and his policies to open the economy soon brought prosperity. He was praised for everything from controlling inflation to putting Coke and other trendy foreign goods on shop shelves.
But his Congress Party became wracked by scandal and in May elections - after ruling India for all but four of the last 49 years - it fell from power.
Now, Rao’s achievements largely have been obscured by three corruption cases he faces:
A businessman admits that in 1983 he paid a $100,000 bribe to a Hindu priest claiming to be an associate of Rao, then foreign minister. He accuses Rao of knowing about the deal.
In 1989, Rao allegedly used his position as foreign minister to pressure India’s New York consulate to authenticate fake documents tracing an illegal foreign bank account to the son of a political rival.
In 1993, Rao allegedly bribed parliament members to support him during a confidence vote. The case, however, was thrown into limbo when a key witness recanted testimony.
The 74-year-old Rao so far has managed to avoid jail or even a court appearance for any of the cases, arguing ill health or poor courtroom security. For the past few weeks, Indians have been opening their morning papers or watching evening news broadcasts to learn of his latest legal maneuver.
Last week, two federal officers drove to Rao’s home in central New Delhi to arrest him. But a lawyer who was also at the house immediately posted $715 bail - keeping Rao out of custody.
“I think the public feels that the way the system works, those who have power and those who have influence can escape the clutches of the law,” said E. Sridharan, a political scientist at India’s premier think tank, the Center for Policy Research.
“That itself is damaging - the cynicism about the criminal justice system,” Sridharan said.
The scandal also has done untold damage to an already weakened Congress Party - the party of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi.
After the 1991 assassination of Indira Gandhi’s son, Rajiv, Rao became head of the party because other leaders had been tainted by allegations over kickbacks from a Swedish arms maker.
Few thought Rao would be any more than a transitional figure. But his success in freeing the economy from strangling effects of protectionism and socialism won him support.
By the time he lost power, scores of politicians and bureaucrats were caught up in a $23 million bribes-for-favors scandal.
Rao at first still appeared personally above corruption. Then the charges against him began to seep out.
He resigned last month as the party’s top leader, but remains head of its committee of parliament members, a powerful policy-making position.
Rao’s continued prominence reflects the reluctance of Indian power brokers to make radical changes, their willingness to put stability over painful reform.