P.V. Narasimha Rao: The undervalued PM who changed India's destiny

It is to Rao's credit that within a short period of time he not only arrested the decline of his party but was able to unite the country on the most productive political platforms since the freedom movement - the pursuit of prosperity, writes Tarun Basu for South Asia Monitor

Tarun Basu Jul 22, 2020
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It was early May 1991, and Congress leader and former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, plotting a comeback to power after 18 months of two brittle coalition governments, was meeting a clutch of select journalists representing Indian and international media on the expansive lawns of his residence at 10 Janpath. It was the evening before he was leaving for his fateful election campaign to South India. Exuding quiet self-confidence, Gandhi suddenly turned away from the media crowd around him to bring up P V Narasimha Rao, who was till then lurking in the shadows. 

"And this is the time Rao has decided to retire," Gandhi said ruefully. Rao, he indicated, had already packed his bags and books and was going to settle down in hometown Hyderabad, where he was once a chief minister. Rao, who was Gandhi's first human resource development minister, said it was an irrevocable decision, as he had decided to give up active politics and was going to retire with his books and writing.

Life, it is said, is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans. In a few days, on May 21, 1991, Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in Tamil Nadu by an LTTE suicide bomber, pitchforking Rao into the centre of the political maelstrom and into the seat of power as India's tenth prime minister.

Nearly 16 years after his death, Rao remains one of India's most enigmatic and underrated prime ministers, devalued by his own party, which did not even allow him a cremation in the capital.  Even his body was not allowed to be kept for public viewing at the Congress party headquarters and was given a sendoff from the gate by party bigwigs, including party president Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. 

Shyam Saran, the former foreign secretary who had worked in the Rao PMO, recalled poignantly in a recent article how, when he went to pay his respects after his death, he found "not a soul around except for a lone policeman sitting on a chair reading a newspaper. One of India’s finest prime ministers and a thoroughly cultivated human being certainly deserved better."

Transforming India

Ironically, for a man who was often accused unfairly of not taking decisions, Pamulaparti Venkata Narasimha Rao will be remembered as someone who decisively changed the course of India's history.  At the time when power knocked on his door on a fateful June evening, the country was effectively divided between political forces representing Mandal (backward class reservations) and Mandir (Hindu nationalist claims on the Babri mosque). Not only was the country at the brink of sociological collapse, but the Congress party was also heading towards political marginalization.

It is to Rao's credit that within a short period of time he not only arrested the decline of his party but was able to unite the country on the most productive political platforms since the freedom movement - the pursuit of prosperity.  

When the Congress government came to power on June 20, 1991, India was within two weeks of its first default on international payments.  Foreign exchange reserves stood at less than $1 billion, enough only for two weeks' imports. Months earlier it had mortgaged all 55 tonnes of gold in the Reserve Bank vaults.  Large payments were falling due, and no one was prepared to lend India money.

A default would have meant an immediate cut-off of suppliers' credit; shipments to India on the high seas would have turned back with consequent oil and diesel shortage; the distribution system would have broken down; industrial production would have crashed and a good part of the harvest would have rotted in the fields.  Inflation, even famine, were seen as possibilities.

Rao quietly made the first, and one of the biggest breaks with Indian parliamentary traditions, appointing Manmohan Singh, a technocrat and academic economist, as finance minister.  Then, without another word in public, he gave unstinting support to Singh to clean up the mess and chart a new course for a country whose growth had been hobbled by a socialist economy and a license-permit raj that stymied wealth accumulation and even saw it as evil.

Rao's intervention in India's destiny did not come a moment too soon.  Separatist, regional and communal forces had weakened the centralised political power structure, and it is to Rao's credit that he ushered in a political and administrative culture that facilitated the rehabilitation of institutions and restored the 'animal spirits' in business and economy, undermined by previous socialist regimes.

When he took over, India's position in the geopolitical configuration of the region was at its weakest.  Not only did he quickly win the support of the Western powers to marginalize Pakistan, which was emboldened by the collapse of the Soviet Union and insurgency in Kashmir, but also won the confidence of international monetary institutions whose help was crucial for India to tide over the precarious state of the economy.  Under his tutelage, India was also able to weather multifaceted pressures on myriad issues, including non-proliferation; established diplomatic relations with Israel; launched the 'Look East' policy for a region overlooked by previous governments; and recast the priorities of India's diplomacy from pursuing delusions of grandeur to the purposeful pursuit of economic interests that led to India becoming an investment destination.
 
What has also been forgotten now is Rao's considered attempt to revalidate the constitutional processes.  His five years in office were probably the best years of Indian federalism when the survival of state governments was not dependent on the whims of the centre, or on partisan considerations playing a role in center-state allocations.  It is not without reason that even regional opposition leaders on occasions could not help betraying their appreciations of the first prime minister from the South.

Polyglot PM

However, little was known about the man who, less than a fortnight before he was catapulted to the nation's top job had remarked blithely to a friend in Hyderabad, "I am a retired man now."

Born into a family of modest means in Vangara village of Karimnagar district in what is now Telangana, Rao was always self-effacing, one to whom the pursuit of scholarship and intellectual advancement were more rewarding than political aggrandizement.
 
When Rao read Gabriel Garcia Marquez's celebrated book, "Love in the Time of Cholera," he was so moved by the Nobel winner's intense prose that he obtained the original Spanish edition and read it as well.

Rao's felicity in Spanish, as well as many other languages, goes back to his days as an information minister in the Andhra Pradesh government in the late sixties.  He had his early tutoring in French and Spanish from a junior official in his ministry at the time.  He followed that up by joining the School of Foreign Languages at Jawaharlal Nehru University when he moved to Delhi.

Predictably, Rao topped the examinations.  His love of Spanish was to take him to Mexico when the Congress Party went out of power following prime minister Indira Gandhi's emergency rule.  When she came back to power in 1980, Rao became her foreign minister and his aspiration for higher studies in Spanish was thwarted.

While Telugu was Rao's mother tongue, his linguistic talent enabled him to pick up other languages when he came into contact with them - Urdu, Persian and Marathi among them, as he completed his university education in Maharashtra in mathematics and then law.

Even as he joined the government later, he gained such proficiency in Hindi that he earned a government award for his translation of a famous Telugu novel.

His third daughter, Surabhi Vani Devi, a painter, had once said in a magazine interview: "My father was forever hungry for knowledge......he was (even) learning different languages of the computer." Rao was known to have mastered at least 15 languages in his lifetime. 

When the Babri Masjid was demolished in December 1992 - the lowest point of his 1991-96 prime ministerial tenure - people began counting Rao's days. About 3,000 lives were lost in the bloodletting between December and March 1993.  The Left and the Janata Dal made Rao, not the BJP, the target of their attack, going so far as to accuse him of being a closet communalist.

Ayodhya was the only issue in which Rao took direct responsibility for decisions, saying he was hamstrung by constitutional fetters on his powers to act against a state government in a federal system and that he was betrayed by those who he trusted. In all other areas, he was content to operate through chief ministers and cabinet ministers who had his trust.

Self-effacing man

If Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi led from the front, Rao has preferred to guide his ministers from the back.  If Indira and Rajiv were consequently always in the spotlight, Rao gained an uncommon reputation for shunning it.
 
He was an oddity among politicians, someone who did not mind letting others take the credit, as long as it served the larger political purpose.  In the aftermath of the Congress victory in most of the states in November 1992, he offered the olive branch to the moderate elements in the Sangh Parivar -  the leader of India's delegation to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights meeting in Geneva chosen by him being none other than opposition BJP leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who was to later become prime minister.  In the highly polarised politics of recent years, such an eventuality would be unthinkable.

As someone who traveled widely with him on his international trips and also interviewed him twice as prime minister, Rao came across as a man who worked with a quiet and canny self-assurance about what he had set out to do. "The policy changes effected by my government should not be seen as an ad hoc exercise," he said once. "It is part of a well thought out economic and political strategy."

Some of his party colleagues perhaps egged on by the Congress' first family, which felt marginalised under him, did their best to pull him down in his later years, laying the blame squarely on him "for complicity in 1984 anti-Sikh riots, Union Carbide’s Warren Anderson escape after the Bhopal gas tragedy, and above all, for conspiring to demolish the Babri Masjid in 1992". The party, which he served for six decades with utmost loyalty, was even "determined to erase him from the party’s pantheon," says  V Sitapati, who wrote a highly acclaimed biography of Rao called "Half Lion: How P.V. Narasimha Rao Transformed India".

"But, concluded Sitapati, "had Narasimha Rao not become prime minister, India would have been a different country".

In his centenary year, India certainly owes the scholar-prime minister a huge debt of gratitude, for ushering in pioneering reforms that set the country on the path of progress and prosperity,  giving it a quiet self-assurance in its abilities that has helped it to weather many a storm since then. 

(The writer is President SPS and former Editor in Chief, IANS.  The views expressed are personal)

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