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Book Review

Tale of triumph — or disillusionment?

THE PARTIAL MEMOIRS OF V.K.R.V. RAO: S. L. Rao — Editor; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Also available at ``Oxford House'', Anna Salai, Chennai-600002. Rs. 445.

THIS BOOK must be among the rare instances of memoirs being ``partial'', with the author preferring to jot down his recollections in fits and starts and not having either the patience or the time for giving a chronological account starting from childhood and ending up with the ``grey eminence'' he or she had reached. This makes Dr. V.K.R.V. Rao's book (he passed away in 1991 when he was 83) very readable just by its being very concise.

Media persons who have had occasions to know Dr. Rao would recall how he could not only be abrasive and prickly but also — perhaps without realising it — hasty which could suggest that he was unfeeling. There was a shocking illustration of this in 1969 immediately after the death of the much loved and charismatic ``Anna'' — C. N. Annadurai, the first DMK Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. There was initially a wrong report of his having passed away and Rao, who was then Union Minister, promptly telephoned newspapers to dictate a message of condolence. The news agencies, however, withdrew the wrong report and issued a fresh one about his being alive. When the New Delhi bureau of a newspaper brought this to the notice of Rao, the response from him — to say the least — was outrageous. Instead of expressing regrets and withdrawing his premature condolence message and even wishing ``Anna'' a long life, he said that it could be retained for the ``appropriate occasion''!

Towards the end of the book, while writing about his ``arrogance and conceit'', he mentions how he later realised that ``overconfidence in one's own importance are only illusions, mirages in the desert when one gets close to them''. An instance of his outspokenness when he was a Member of Parliament of the ruling Congress Party was his merciless upbraiding of a Union Minister of State for Finance for the ``stupid remarks'' he had earlier made at a news conference. The Minister, who was furious over the brazenness of the activities of a notorious smuggler of Mumbai, much to the amusement of the media persons, expressed his pathetic helplessness when he said that he would resort to satyagraha at the gates of the mafia don!

In his introduction to the book, Mr. S. L. Rao, who is a nephew of Dr. Rao, says that while his uncle was ``an applied economist par excellence'', ``there is no report of any stellar contribution by Rao in parliamentary debates''. Rao's forte lay in his flair for the building of institutions like the Institute of Economic Growth (IEG) and the Delhi School of Economics, which remain as centres of excellence. He might not have been good at winning friends and influencing people but even those who did not like him would concede that he was scrupulously honest. It is, therefore, surprising to know from the introduction to the book about the serious charges made against him by his friend, M. N. Srinivas, about his operation of the Ford Foundation grant.

The charges were examined by a committee headed by Rajni Kothari and they were dismissed as unfounded and unsubstantiated allegations. It is also not surprising that he was ``not on speaking terms'' with T. T. Krishnamachari, known just as much for his arrogance as Rao. It must have been a case of like poles repelling each other. He also writes about his brush with the Defence Minister, Krishna Menon and how he dared him by defying his going ahead with a demolition of the pillboxes of the Defence Ministry remaining as an eyesore in the Delhi University campus. Rao who will be remembered for his pioneering work on India's national income, which should have been inspired by Colin Clark's outstanding studies on the subject in England despite the woeful lack of data on the subject, had the privilege of coming into contact while studying in Cambridge, with John Maynard Keynes immediately after he had published his celebrated General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money in the 1930s, J. R. and Ursula Hicks, Denis Robertson, Joan Robinson, Pierro Straffa, Lionel Robbins, and Frederich Hayek and other outstanding English economists, who were virtually the architects of the economic policy of the British Labour Government headed by Clement Attlee immediately after the Second World War.

It is also very likely that Colin Clark, who was the author of his extremely well researched studies on national income, had prompted Rao's own studies on India's national income. There is, however, no mention in the book of William Beveridge whose Full Employment in a Free Society, which had laid the framework for the Labour Government's economic policy though Dr. Rao should have known him as well. His voracious reading led him to the reports of the British Royal Commission on Income Tax. The writings of Keynes and all other outstanding economists of his time, recalled by Rao, however, would seem to have become passe because of the present disillusionment with socialism and state-directed economic policy and with the governments the world over — including that of Communist China — rushing to seek out the multinational corporations for multi-billion dollar investments.

It is good to know from Rao — though one could not be quite sure that this could be universally true — that after successfully contesting elections for Parliament, he could say ``with complete confidence on the basis of my experience, that by and large caste plays the least part in determining rural voting provided the electorate is brought directly and face to face with the irrationality and uselessness of caste as a criterion for political choice''.

The extensive knowledge he had gained about financial management and taxation might well have filled Rao with ambitions of becoming India's Finance Minister though he could never make it and he had to be content with the portfolios of Shipping and Transport before he was shifted, much against his will by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, to Education. His narration of the efforts he had to make to provide funds for the Tuticorin and Mangalore projects — the first out of a concern to be on the right side of the ruling DMK in Tamil Nadu and the second because of the importance of having to nourish Mangalore, which was in his own state — is quite revealing. If there could be no provision in the main Union Budget which was then formulated by the then Union Finance Minister, Morarji Desai — as it initially turned out to be the case of these two projects — the subsequent Supplementary Budget could take care of it probably because by that time it would be easier to take the Finance Minister off guard.

Rao's recapitulation of the negotiations for purchase of ships from the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia when he was the Union Minister for Shipping and Transport should recall the strong objections raised against it by the Planning Commission, particularly by R. Venkataraman, who was one of its members. He was furious that while it was the Government's duty to nourish the state-owned Hindustan Shipyard, which was languishing for lack of orders, it was nourishing foreign shipyards.

Rao deserves praise for his decision not to write the ICS examination because of his loathing to serve the British Government though his recollections of the chance he had missed reveal a sense of disappointment. He would, however, have us believe that he had no regrets. He writes about his feeling ``emotionally drained, confused and finally unhappy at the tame-ending of the nation-wide struggle for freedom'' and his having to ``take refuge in the university''.

This could be due to the sense of betrayal felt — from Mahatma Gandhi downwards — over having to submit to the Partition of the country, which was in fact hastened by Lord Mountbatten for rewarding Jinnah with the pound of flesh he had demanded.

The second part of the book is a collection of writings by P. N. Dhar, C. H. Hanumantha Rao and others on Rao's contributions to economics.

The impression one gets at the end of the book is about the glimpses into a feeling of restlessness and a sense of despondency which Rao could not shake off over not having achieved as much as he might have wished in spite of his having climbed quite high.


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