Half-lion of politics, reformer of economicsFor too long, history has been unkind to PV Narasimha Rao, a man who did not shed his finer sense of economics while leading his country
One can be convinced with India’s former foreign minister and senior politician K Natwar Singh’s remarks on Vinay Sitapati’s maiden but highly impactful book, for which, he has credited him for resurrecting PV Narsimha Rao—India’s former prime minister and the most remarkable Indian Congress leader from outside Gandhi-Nehru family. For too long, history and historians have been unkind to Rao, a man who did not shed his finer sense of economics while leading the country, a rarity among the democracies of South Asia. Sitapati’s Half-Lion: How PV Narsimha Rao Transformed India now sets the record straight.
While Rao’s formidable role in shifting the course of Indian economy from a closed ‘License Quota Raj’ to an open and broad-based one has been appreciated by scholars, he never earned the same amount of respect within his own party. As Sitapati opens up a vital debate backed up by rich archival study and excellent narratives on a forgotten giant of Indian politics, it becomes clearer for what reasons he met unkind treatment by the Congress’ big-wigs.
The book throws light on the Gandhi-Nehru family’s selective treatments of Rao—benign while a trusted lieutenant of Rajiv Gandhi, and suspicious on his new avatar of an accidental prime minister in the wake of unfortunate assassination of the former. Apparently, an emotionally-jolted Sonia Gandhi was not for holding the baton of her party then; otherwise she would be the prime minister of India by as early as 1991. Although her distance from active politics didn’t restrain her watch on Rao, who with his newly found authority was strongly tempted to depart from the Nehruvian lines to deal with the conservative forte of polity and economy. This evidently caused a clear conflict of interest between the two power-centers in the ruling party.
While Sitapati focuses on Rao’s micro-management and his long, eventful political career, he also presents a scintillating view on Rao’s emergence as the true guide and implementer of economic reforms in India. While keeping an excellent flow, the book provides rich insights into the fundamentals and complexities of politics and economy in India. It aptly proves that Rao was a politician who ensured politics did not win over economics—and thus started India’s tryst with economic reforms and a shift in the outlook in all spheres.
The book goes into detail on how Rao became the unlikely prime minister of India in 1991—and how he inherited a nation adrift and not a bed of roses; a macro scenario crippled by vicious economic crisis and violent insurgencies. Moreover, he was shackled by the little or no love he received from his people, the deep mistrust in his party, a minority in Parliament and ruling under the shadow of 10 Janpath, the supreme power block of Congress party. Yet, Rao braved the odds and reinvented India—at home and abroad. It would not be possible to draw a parallel of his accomplishments, especially because he faced severe shortage of support from all the sides.
Time and again, Rao has been recalled by the principal opposition party BJP, for political score, to highlight how the ‘family’ rules the Congress and how it still keeps a semi-feudal structure where an independent scholarly leader can’t get anything more than a route to oblivion. Alas, Rao couldn’t be of the same great help to his party as when he was alive and served as CM of Andhra Pradesh, Cabinet Minister at the Centre and as the epoch-making prime minister of the world’s largest democracy. And the saddest fact remains that someone worthy like him couldn’t get few metres of land in India’s sprawling capital to rest permanently after his demise. This is nothing short of a blot in India’s modern history.
PV Narasimha Rao should be credited for ushering the process of ‘economic reforms’, not just in India
but also in the neighbourhood. The wave of positive changes that followed his Nepal visit in 1992 is an apt example. His eagerness to improve and simplify the rules on the export of goods from Nepal had marked that reformatory spirit—and it went further when he, partnering with his then counterpart Girija Prasad Koirala, broadened the scope of bilateral trade co-operation by harnessing water resources.
His ‘neighbourhood policy’ was not just a slogan. His administration was instrumental in bringing energy (hydro-electricity) projects to Karnali, Pancheshwar, Sapta-Koshi and Budhigandaki. He must be remembered for solving contentious issues—the most glaring among them the Tanakpur Barrage—where he displayed high diplomatic maturity and goodwill by leaving it under Nepal’s control. Rao, without being an interventionist, showed keen interest in boosting economic ties with Nepal.
Sitapati provides a vivid account of each and every moment which mattered either positively or negatively—and those bearing significance in Rao’s life and career. What makes the work definitive and pointed is the author’s deep passion in unearthing Rao’s multifaceted persona, and to explore the latter’s exclusive papers and over a hundred interviews. Not surprisingly, the young promising historian, Sitapati, makes several revelations on crucial background stories of economic reforms, the covert nuclear programme, shifting policies on external and strategic affairs and lacklustre dealing of the Babri Masjid incident.
The fact that Rao was comfortable with Hindutva was never a secret, but this book helps the readers to understand it inside out. If he was an open-minded scholar, introvert and a doer, he was also someone who knew how to use momentous opportunities, and to thrive on it. A reformer, who made it possible for his finance minister Manmohan Singh to quote Victor Hugo and usher India towards a real liberal regime in 1991, couldn’t prove similarly progressive when he had to deal with the polarisation India went through during his tenure.
Still, in honest evaluation, Rao should be known as someone who started out on a humble note and reached to the zenith, based on his calibre and through strong determination to sail against the tide. Not that all his policies proved panaceas for the nation he served and loved—but it is indisputable that he was an original thinker and he did everything possible to give India the choice of ‘change and continuity’.
What India’s puzzling modern political history needs is to have a set of keen biographers; so the masses understand the people who influenced the course of the country’s development. Sitapati has played his part in narrating modern Indian political history through his first book, which is a rattling good read.
Thakur is a New Delhi-based journalist, writer and literary critic