‘I needed to make footnotes fun’

Vinay Sitapati brings P.V. Narasimha Rao back into popular imagination with a biography which makes sense of the man and the challenges he grappled with

July 10, 2016 04:59 pm | Updated 04:59 pm IST

P.V. Narasimha Rao

P.V. Narasimha Rao

Almost consigned to footnotes of contemporary history, this July, P.V. Narasimha Rao returned to opinion pages because a young scholar has managed to bring his life and legacy between covers. “Half Lion” is an apt title to describe the former Prime Minister, known to speak many languages. He was brave enough to tear apart the red tape but when it came to protecting the social fabric of the country, he sounded squeamish. Not once, but twice. Vinay Sitapati has presented the duality in Rao’s personality through a gripping narrative without resorting to speculation. There is intrigue, betrayal and affairs, all backed by scholarship.

Inspired by Ezra F. Vogel’s biography of Deng Xiaoping, responsible for the transformation of China in the ‘80s, the political scientist decided to explore the change India went through in the ‘90s through the political and personal story of the leader in those tumultuous times.

The Harvard University graduate signed the contract with Penguin in April last year. Though the work is thorough, the timing of the release gives an impression that it might become a tool in the hands of the ruling dispensation to corner the Congress leadership, which discredited Rao. Sitapati says he didn’t come to the book with any preconception. “I interviewed 110 people and the only thing I went by was the evidence I had. I have criticised his stand during anti-Sikh riots and the political corruption he indulged in.”

Edited excerpts from a conversation:

What was the catalyst for the book? How do you think Rao is relevant to this generation?

I grew up in Bandra in Mumbai and am a child of liberalisation. I have memories of the changes in the 1990s. Today’s entire generation is shaped by decisions Narasimha Rao made – from mobile phones to large welfare schemes. Things could have turned out very differently.

We give him the credit for liberalisation and economic reforms but the book suggests that Rao had little idea about economics. In that case, what was his biggest achievement?

It is a mistake to think of liberalisation in purely technical terms. The economic blueprint for liberalisation was ready by the early 1980s. Four PMs before Rao had the ideas and experts. But they didn’t have the political ability. Rao’s talent was that he knew how to outmanoeuvre opponents of liberalisation: the Congress, big business and the Left. Liberalisation is fundamentally a political story. Rao is the hero, with supporting roles played by reformers like Dr. Manmohan Singh and A.N. Varma.

The biography finds him guilty of being unable to act during the anti-Sikh riots but when he shows similar behaviour during the Babri demolition it goes into minute details to underline that he made genuine efforts to stop the destruction of the mosque. Both cases had communal overtones and in both cases he was in a position of power. Then why should we not join the dots?

There is a basic difference in the positions of power Rao held in these two situations. Rao was home minister and the Delhi police reported directly to him during the anti-Sikh riots. He chose to listen to his party and Rajiv’s PMO rather than the law. I call it his “vilest hour”. In the case of Babri Masjid, as per the Constitution, the police protecting the mosque reported to the UP chief minister only. Rao’s problem was that he didn’t have a legally iron-clad way to dismiss Kalyan Singh, and didn’t trust his party to back him if he did. The Supreme Court, Rao’s cabinet, the law ministry, Uttar Pradesh governor, IB, even the ‘secular’ opposition – nobody was unequivocally asking for the dismissal of the U.P. government. Those who today claim to have anticipated the demolition were hedging their bets then. Rao definitely made the wrong decision, but it was under very difficult circumstances.

How did his personality and character traits affect his political decisions?

Here is one example. As a literary scholar, Rao’s favourite text was the 16th century Telugu poem ‘Raghava Pandaveeyam’. The same text can be read as the Mahabharata or Ramayana, depending on the interpretation. Rao enjoyed this double-meaning. As prime minister, he would deliberately claim that liberalisation was only an extension of Nehruvian socialism. He used this word-play to disguise change as continuity. He loved ambiguity and used it as a political tool.

While reading the book one can make out that beyond the political spectrum, he was not just an erudite old man with an exaggerated pout.

Rao was, personally and politically, a lonely man. He never cultivated any coterie within the Congress. This meant that he had to build his own parallel network of informants. As chief minister, he relied on the godman Chandraswami and Lakshmi Kantamma, with whom he had a 15-year relationship. He would eat lunch only after Kantamma joined him. As PM, he had an even wider circle of informants. As my book shows, he used the IB repeatedly. For Rao, information was power.

Why did the Congress leadership feel threatened when Rao didn’t have a mass base?

The Congress only began to feel threatened after the Tirupati session in April 1992. Before that, they thought of Rao as a temporary PM. From 1993 to 1996, Rao was able to show that the Congress could thrive without a Nehru-Gandhi at the helm. That is why today’s Congress has dumped and discredited him.

What were the challenges that you faced during research?

I faced two main challenges. My informants had to trust me. They were telling me really explosive stuff. I solved that problem by being honest, clearing the quotes, and never quoting out of context. The other challenge was to tell a gripping narrative that was also a work of academic scholarship. I needed to make footnotes fun.

Like a fable, you have tried to present Rao’s personality through different animals…

Rao could analyse his own weakness as well as that of his enemy in most circumstances. He could then play lion, mouse, or fox – as the situation demanded. He knew when to win, when to lose, and when to deceive. His sense of role and timing was genius.

The timing of the release suggests that the book might become a tool in the hands of the ruling dispensation to corner the Congress?

There was only one reason for the timing – July 2016 marks the 25th anniversary of reforms.I had zero political angles. Had Congress been in power, we would have still released the book now.

What is the response of the people you have quoted in the book?

I took the precaution of getting confirmations from all those interviewed. This includes Dr. Manmohan Singh, Rao’s cook Rajaiah, and Dr. Srinath Reddy (Rao’s personal physician). The book also has 1100 footnotes. Though some have faulted my opinions, my research has not got any criticism so far. The heart of the book, of course, is Rao’s own archives and private papers.

Did you leave any explosive material because you could not find people to corroborate?

Yes. Scholarship is not writing what you know; it is writing only what you can prove. For instance, I heard many stories on Rao’s affairs and relationships, but I could prove only a few. I was also cautious on the nuclear chapter, for reasons of national security. But that chapter, on how Rao is the ‘true father’ of India’s nuclear bomb, is still the most explosive in the book.

Usually young writers delve into fiction; you are an exception…

Reality imposes severe limits. I can’t make things up; I have to be true to the material. I love working under these constraints. It forces me to be creative in the few areas I have control over, like narrative technique.

What’s next?

I’ve been told that the book’s strength is in merging academic scholarship with journalistic reporting. I want to improve both these skills. It’s hard work I know, but I’m only at the beginning of my career.

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