Shankar Dayal Sharma was Sonia’s first choice as PM in 1991

New Delhi: After Rajiv Gandhi’s tragic death mid way through his 1991 election campaign in Sriperumbudur, the Congress party came to power with 244 seats. It was a unique election for it was split into two parts, one before his assassination and the other after. A day after the first round of polling took place on May 20, former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was killed. The remaining election days were postponed until mid-June and voting finally took place on June 12 and 15. Voting was the lowest ever in parliamentary elections with just 53 per cent of the electorate exercising their right to vote.

Since the assassination took place after the first phase of polling in 211 of 534 constituencies and the balance constituencies went to polls after the assassination, the 1991 results varied greatly between phases. The Congress party did poorly in the pre-assassination constituencies and swept the post-assassination constituencies.

With the Congress party leaderless, Rajiv Gandhi’s grieving wife became the centrifuge. One of her closest advisers at the time — K. Natwar Singh — asked for her decision on who should be appointed the leader of the Parliamentary Party. Sonia Gandhi, at the behest of P.N. Haksar, asked for K. Natwar Singh and Aruna Asaf Ali to visit Shankar Dayal Sharma and convince him to lead the party as India’s next Prime Minister.

Natwar Singh and Asaf Ali failed to persuade Vice President Sharma (who later became President of India) for he cried off citing age, infirmity and ill health. With Sonia Gandhi herself deciding on not accepting the position as party President despite a CWC appeal, Haksar on being asked a second time suggested P.V. Narasimha Rao’s name.

Talking to IANS, Natwar Singh revealed, “So, after the funeral, I broached the subject with Ms Gandhi. I told her she was right in not accepting the CWC appeal but then the fact remained, we had to address the issue of choosing someone to lead the party and the new government. She listened but kept quiet. Then I suggested that she discuss the matter with P.N. Haksar (the late key advisor of Indira Gandhi who was also a trusted family confidant) too. She asked for 24 hours to think about it.”

Natwar Singh recounted the events as they unfolded, “A day after, Ms Gandhi asked me to tell P.N. Haksar to meet her. Then Haksar and me met her and discussed the leadership issue. At some point, Haksar told her that the then Vice President Shankar Dayal Sharma might be the right person to lead the party and the country at that juncture. She paused for a while, though about it, and then agreed with the suggestion. Soon (late) Aruna Asaf Ali and me called on Shankar Dayal Sharma with the proposal. We were in for a big surprise.”

He said another round of discussion then took place between Ms Gandhi, Haksar and himself. “Then Haksar felt P.V. (Narasimha Rao) should be the next choice and she agreed. Here I must say I was not involved in discussing the matter with Mr Rao. Some others did that. Once Mr Rao, who was denied a RS re-nomination and was ready to return to Andhra Pradesh, agreed and after Sharad Pawar was made to bow out of the race, the CWC and Congress Parliamentary Party (CPP) met to elect him as the new Congress president and Prime Minister,” added Natwar Singh.