PV Narasimha Rao, the man who turned the tide
The best way to judge a Prime Minister is to see what he inherited and what he leaves behind as a legacy. By that yardstick, Narasimha Rao was definitely the best Prime Minister the country had seen
Hyderabad: How does one describe former Prime Minister late P V Narasimha Rao? Most would say he was an intellectual, a polyglot and a scholar, a wily politician but not a man of the masses, seemingly unambitious, and yet a political survivor. But, for his close associates, he was also a genius who played a pivotal role in the transformation of the country through economic reforms, liberalisation, foreign policy and welfare schemes in the 1990s.
Vinay Sitapati, who teaches at Ashoka University, and author of “Half Lion: How P V Narasimha Rao Transformed India,” goes to the extent of saying that Narasimha Rao was the equivalent of Deng Xiaoping, considered as the father of modern China.
“The 90s were a big break for India. I had studied India from the 60s through 2000 when I was commissioned by Penguin to do this book on Narasimha Rao. I knew little about him then, but when I started to do some research, reading about 200 books, meeting his close associates and family members who passed on carton-loads of his personal writings, I realised there was a book waiting to be written about India changing in the 90s and the role played by Narasimha Rao in the transformation of the country,” Sitapati said, in an interview with Telangana Today.
“The genius of Narasimha Rao was that he was able to influence a lot of decisions even while coming across as a seemingly indecisive person, and there is strong evidence for this,” he said, and explains that when he started writing the book, he came with total neutrality and merely wanted to tell the story of India changing in the 90s through the leader at that time. “One must realise that the 90s were very unstable politically, and what Narasimha Rao did under these circumstances was nothing short of a political miracle, making him the best Prime Minister India had seen,” he said.
Excerpts from the interview:
Why do you think the 90s were a turning point for India? And the role played by Narasimha Rao?
It was not merely the economic reforms or liberalisation that took place during the 90s. Nothing major had been done till then on the welfare front at the national level. It was during Narasimha Rao’s time that major welfare initiatives such as the mid-day meal scheme, NREGS and healthcare were taken up.
There were major changes in foreign policy with India establishing good relations with incompatible nations like the US and Russia. When it comes to economic reforms, the single most important factor was the abolition of licence quota which removed bureaucratic red-tapism. He chose Dr Manmohan Singh for the job as Finance Minister but kept Industries to himself. Narasimha Rao’s file notings reveal that he clearly understood what was going on. The new industrial policy and the national telecom policy were arguably the most visible signs of liberalisation.
On the welfare front, Narasimha Rao brought in two experts, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s father B N Yugandhar and father-in-law K R Venugopal, both IAS officers, into the Prime Minister’s Office. Most Prime Ministers after Narasimha Rao including the current Prime Minister Narendra Modi have followed in his footsteps when it comes to welfare schemes.
The genius in Narasimha Rao was that he would never project himself (as the man behind such initiatives) because he knew that such policies were unpopular, and hated by his own party. He made the Minister of State for Industries table the new industrial policy, and he made then Telecom Minister Sukhram and West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu have a mobile phone conversation to mark its launch in India.
Narasimha Rao was so successful in hiding his fingerprint that people didn’t even realise how decisive a role he had played in initiating these move until I wrote about it.
How did Narasimha Rao manage to implement the various initiatives, many of them unpopular, given the circumstances that his own party did not back him?
Again that was the genius in him. How can a weak Prime Minister bring about so many changes in the country? The fact is that the man converted his weaknesses into strengths. Most people would say Nehru was the best Prime Minister, but then he had the complete backing of the Congress, which, during his time, had no competition at national or even at the States level. Nehru had the golden key and he deployed it. Narasimha Rao had none of these.
Three Prime Ministers before Narasimha Rao and four after him were minority PMs, and their governments fell. In the midst of such unstable conditions, this man not only lasts the full five years but also brings about such huge changes. This was definitely a political miracle unparalleled in the world.
The best way to judge a Prime Minister is to see what he inherited and what he leaves behind as a legacy. By that yardstick, Narasimha Rao was definitely the best Prime Minister the country had seen. The economy was on the brink of collapse, the foreign policy had totally failed, and there was chaos across the country. Narasimha Rao’s position then was not like Narendra Modi’s now, where he could get whatever he wanted done.
That Narasimha Rao was a hands-on Prime Minister can be seen from the way he handled foreign policy. Because he was Minister for Foreign Affairs for two terms, he knew as much as the Foreign Secretary, which is very rare. In his file notings on China, he has written frequently about overruling the Ambassador to China, which again was very rare because most Prime Ministers would not know the various issues on foreign affairs. But, Narasimha Rao was not like that.
It’s because of these qualities that people who worked closely with him had tremendous admiration for the person, they understood that there was more to this man than the stereotype politician, and there is more to the joke that Narasimha Rao can be silent in 10 languages.
Was the Congress unfair to him, not giving him credit where it was due, like the economic reforms? And blaming him for fiascos such as the Babri Masjid demolition?
The way Narasimha Rao’s personality has been portrayed has been certainly unfair. Every politician has good and bad points, but the Congress chose to exaggerate his mistakes and minimise his strengths.
Though the new industrial policy was written in 1989 and all the ideas of economic reforms were well known, the initiatives could not be pushed through. Yashwant Sinha, who was Finance Minister in the Chandrashekhar government, could not introduce it because the government fell. In fact, Sinha says that the 1991 budget of Manmohan Singh was 60 to 70 per cent of his budget, word for word.
Narasimha Rao, however, had the political ability and will to push the reforms. He should be the first person to get credit for the reforms, but Manmohan Singh was the face of the reforms, and he got the credit because Narasimha Rao himself didn’t want any acknowledgment for his role. Manmohan Singh has always admitted that the political power came from Narasimha Rao. He continues to be loyal to the image of Narasimha Rao, and admits to the role played by the latter in his life.
One probable reason why Narasimha Rao didn’t want to claim credit for the reforms and new policies may again have been for self-preservation should something go wrong. One should understand that the Congress was opposed to it because the party felt that it went against Nehruvian socialism. In a way, liberalisation took place despite the Congress.
When it comes to Babri Masjid, it is only the Congress which blames Narasimha Rao. Of course, he did rub the Gandhi family on the wrong side by trying to disassociate Sonia Gandhi from the party. During the anti-Sikh riots, when Narasimha Rao was Home Minister, he got direct order from the PMO that the police will report to the Prime Minister directly. He was completely bypassed and had no powers. He wanted to continue in the Rajiv Gandhi Cabinet, it was important for him. He knew what was happening but chose to protect himself. Had he played his Constitutional role, he would have been kicked out of the Congress. In the end, it was Rajiv Gandhi who was responsible.
In the case of Babri Masjid, everybody blamed Narasimha Rao but none spoke against the then Home Minister S B Chavan. Narasimha Rao’s primary instinct was self-preservation, as is the same with all politicians. But his self-preservation was also to do something good for the country. There was an idealist streak in him. Personally, I can’t imagine any other Prime Minister doing a better job on the Babri Masjid issue since it was a very complicated situation. There were mixed signals before the demolition, there was an elected government in Uttar Pradesh with Kalyan Singh heading it. Everybody was playing passing the parcel.
Among the people you met was Narasimha Rao’s cook Rajaiah. What exactly did he have to say about him?
Well, Rajaiah knew who were close to Narasimha Rao, who had dinner with him frequently, who broke bread with him and who among the family was close to him. Narasimha Rao was a lonely man. Rajaiah was literally his ‘kitchen cabinet’ who knew the entire day’s agenda. Narasimha Rao never had a ‘darbar’ and those who came to meet him were his inner circle, and this Rajaiah knew.
Rajaiah accompanied Narasimha Rao on his foreign trips to prepare food for him. His favourite was Karela (bitter gourd). Even for the Bill Clinton dinner, Narasimha Rao would get back and have Rajaiah make some food for him. No fish, caviar and wine for Narasimha Rao. He was very Indian and not westernised.
As you know, the Telangana State government has decided to have a year-long Narasimha Rao birth centenary celebrations. Would you like to say something about it?
The biggest tribute to the legacy of the leader would be to digitise his books, his personal papers that are with the family, his speeches and bring them on the public domain. If information on Narasimha Rao is easily accessible, more and more people would write on him.
There are hundreds of books on Mahatma Gandhi because all his writings and volumes of books written by him are easily accessible. The same should be the case with Narasimha Rao. Create a world class website where all information on him will be available to ensure that his memory lives much longer, and introduce a chapter on Narasimha Rao in history books for school students. Knowing Narasimha Rao is like getting to know Telangana history, because he has played an enormous role in shaping Andhra Pradesh.
I hope the centenary celebrations popularise a remarkable man who came from Telangana.
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