Literary Review

In the pantheon of heroes

Half Lion: How P.V. Narasimha Rao Transformed India; Vinay Sitapati, Penguin, Rs. 699.  

The Congress denied former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao a funeral in Delhi, a place in its pantheon of party heroes and, not surprisingly, an acknowledgement of how dramatically he re-invented India, at home and abroad. Instead, it cast him as a usurper to the Nehru-Gandhi throne, virtually castigated him as a conspirator in the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992 and, to this day, holds him responsible for the erosion of its base in the Hindi heartland.

Indeed, the Congress establishment has all but erased Pamulaparti Venkata Narasimha Rao from its 131-year-old history.

A just-published biography now seeks to give Rao his rightful place in the story of the country as the principal architect of economic reforms, a quarter century after they were launched. Simultaneously, it bucks the popular view in the Congress and demonstrates (with available evidence) 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).

In Vinay Sitapati’s largely sympathetic portrayal, Rao — the first person outside the Nehru-Gandhi family to have completed five years as Prime Minister — emerges as a man who provided transformational leadership to India at a time of deep financial crisis. For Sitapati, Rao ranks with “revolutionary figures” such as Jawaharlal Nehru, Deng Xiaoping, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Charles de Gaulle. But he was not a popular mass leader; he presided over a minority government; his party colleagues did not trust him; 10 Janpath kept an eagle eye on him. Up against great odds and with little power, he yet achieved much.

The Congress has assiduously sought to give much of the credit for the 1991 reforms to Manmohan Singh, the finance minister at the time, but Sitapati establishes that it was Rao who was the principal driver. Nevertheless, 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 not only provides behind-the-scenes details of how Rao neutralised criticism to the radical economic reforms both from sections of the opposition and from within the Congress, but how he assembled a handpicked team and sought help from a range of people, regardless of their political affiliations.

Rao, for instance, reportedly spoke to Subramanian Swamy, a minister in the outgoing government, two days before his swearing-in, to access documents that the latter had prepared to help him decide on a way to manage the balance-of-payments crisis. Rao even used an Intelligence Bureau report to checkmate President Pranab Mukherjee, since he felt the latter would resist the proposed reforms. There is an interesting nugget, too, on Manmohan Singh: when he took a somewhat cautious draft of his 1991 budget to Rao, the latter dismissed it with a crisp “If this is what I wanted, why would I have selected you?”

But sympathetic as Sitapati is, this is no hagiography. As it 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 book describes him, warts and all. It explores the deftness with which he negotiated the Byzantine corridors of the Congress, while using his friendships across the aisle to advantage; how he used the IB to spy on colleagues; it stresses his 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, “his vilest hour”.

Riveting as the book is, it never descends into salaciousness. Neither does it leave out any aspect of his life, including his relationships with women friends, virtually his only confidantes. It skilfully weaves together Rao’s political life with his personal one, from his troubled childhood and neglected wife, Satyamma, whom he married at the age of ten and who bore him eight children, to his essential loneliness.

As a journalist who covered Rao’s PMO in the 1990s, much of this is not really new. What makes the book special is that Sitapati is able to bolster anecdotal evidence because of the exclusive access he was given by Rao’s family to a treasure trove of personal papers. By quoting from his diary, the author intersperses events as they unfolded with Rao’s thoughts at the time. The 100-plus interviews with principal players also helps flesh out the historic five years.

Rao had his share of human frailties and he made many costly mistakes. But his record as a reformer, transforming both the economy and foreign policy, is surely enough to place this scholar, polyglot and “political genius” in the Congress pantheon of heroes.

Half Lion: How P.V. Narasimha Rao Transformed India ; Vinay Sitapati, Penguin, Rs. 699.


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