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21 October 2016, Gateway House

Understanding P.V. Narasimha Rao

An earnestly, but objectively written, biography of the late prime minister gives credit where it has been denied: PVN was the principal architect of the economic reforms that put the country on a destiny-changing path of growth, while being up against a restless party, hostile Parliament, and an apathetic public.

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Half Lion, a literal translation of P.V. Narasimha Rao’s first name, is written with all the earnestness of a biographer whose goal is to convince the world that India’s Prime Minister  from 1991 to 1996 deserves a place in the pantheon of India’s heroes. The author, drawing on well constructed arguments, anecdotal evidence and journalistic investigation into the politics of that time, establishes that the man who was seen to have the “charisma of a dead fish” succeeded in transforming his country.

The book begins with the sordid political drama surrounding the news of P.V. Narasimha Rao’s death because the Congress Party, eager that the credit for economic reforms be given exclusively to the Nehru Gandhi dynasty, denied him a state funeral in Delhi. Loyalists shunned any association with him, and the Congress leadership made sure that he was not cremated in Delhi. The family was compelled to transport the body to Andhra Pradesh. Indeed, the Congress Party has all but erased Pamulaparti Venkata Narasimha Rao from its 131-year-old history.

Rao, the author argues, deserves a significant place in India’s history because he was the principal architect of the economic reforms that changed India’s destiny forever, ushering in a period of greater growth. This year is the 25th anniversary of those reforms, a seminal moment in India’s economic trajectory and an appropriate time to recognise the hero.

Author Vinay Sitapati’s portrayal of the real hero of India’s economic reforms is based not on any emotional attachment, but on facts. As the author recounts the details that surrounded the dynamic changes that occurred in 1991, Rao emerges as an astute politician who understood the urgency of the financial crisis facing India – the nation had three weeks worth of foreign exchange reserves in its coffers – and worked resolutely and deftly to set in motion the liberalisation era. He was able to change the path of the country by extracting India from the chokehold of decades-long socialist policies which had stifled the economic energy of the nation.

The author states: “He transformed India in those five years, from its economy and welfare schemes to, as we shall see, foreign policy and national security. All the while he managed a restless party, annual state elections, a hostile Parliament and a largely apathetic public. There are few reformers in world history who achieved so much with so little.”

“Where history will judge Rao more kindly is for being the first Indian premier to attempt a genuinely social democratic vision – one where the state encourages private entrepreneurship, and pours the resultant revenue into the social sector. This vision persists not just in the economic reforms that later governments have followed, but in the well funded schemes they have crafted.”

In the author’s view, Rao should rank with “revolutionary figures” such as Jawaharlal Nehru, Deng Xiaoping, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Charles de Gaulle for such transformational policies.  But he was not a popular mass leader; he presided over a minority government; his party colleagues did not trust him; and the Nehru Gandhi dynasty kept a close watch on him.

In the popular view, which has largely been fostered by the Congress Party, credit for the 1991 reforms is given to Manmohan Singh, the finance minister at the time, who subsequently became Prime Minister of India. The author establishes that Rao was the principal driver although his political shrewdness led him to consciously keep a low profile. So it was Manmohan Singh who often faced the flak from Congress naysayers. The author provides details of how Rao neutralised criticism of the radical economic reforms both from sections of the opposition and from within the Congress, and how he assembled a handpicked team and sought help from a range of people, regardless of their political affiliations.

Economic reforms apart, the author also gives Rao credit for “…a realistic assessment of shifting powers” as evident “in his outreach to the US, Israel and East Asia”. Moreover, “the border agreements with China showed a prime minister who had learnt – perhaps from his own domestic weakness – to set aside unresolvable conflicts and focus on common interests. This pragmatism was also visible in Rao’s simultaneous suspicion of Pakistani intentions while keeping the conversation flowing”.  Indeed the foreign policy of India has continued to move away from Nehruvian idealism to a more pragmatic pursuit of national self-interest.

The book makes for very interesting reading because the author, while keen to establish Rao’s deserved place among India’s leaders, does not write in a fawning or sycophantic tone. Sitapati does not overlook the many sides of Rao’s character: his relationships with women, his neglect of his wife, the troubled relationship with some of his children and his essential loneliness.

The author takes the reader through Rao’s life, from his early years in a village in Telangana through his time in power to his humiliation in retirement. The author demonstrates the acuity with which Rao negotiated the Congress, while using his friendships across the aisle to advantage. The book does not hesitate to stress Rao’s failure as home minister to check the rise of insurgency in Punjab, and describes how he ceded authority to Rajiv Gandhi’s PMO in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination that led to the anti-Sikh riots.

The author argues that Rao’s realism explains his limitations. “A strategy that sought concessions when the enemy was too strong meant that Narasimha Rao sometimes chose not to fight the good fight.” For example, after 1995 he slowed down the reforms. His failure to enact labour reforms is a huge impediment for investors, and to this day, India is at the bottom end in the “ease of doing business” ranking.

But he should not be seen as a usurper to the Nehru-Gandhi throne, or castigated as a conspirator in the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992. The Congress Party, to this day, holds him responsible for the erosion of its base in the Hindi heartland. The author bucks this popular view in the Congress and demonstrates that he was maligned in the Babri Masjid case. If he was at fault, the book says, it was an error of indecisiveness (on whether to impose central rule) and poor judgment (he put too much faith in the BJP and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad).

Rao had his share of human frailties and he made many costly mistakes. But his record as a reformer of  both the economy and foreign policy is enough to earn this “political genius” a rightful place in the annals of Indian leadership.

Half-Lion: how P.V. Narasimha Rao transformed India by Vinay Sitapati (Penguin Books Ltd.)

Meera Kumar is a New York-based public relations professional. She has worked with the Asian Development Bank, the State University of New York, New York University, and several Fortune 20 companies. She started her career as a journalist writing for various media outlets in Southeast Asia, including the ‘Bangkok Post’ and ‘The Nation.’

This review was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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