A screenshot of the former Indian Prime Minister Narashima Rao working on his personal computer was one of the standout images at the book launch of journalist-turned-author Vinay Sitapati’s biography of Narashima Rao, Half Lion . Historian Ramachandra Guha and Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani were in attendance.
Sitapati said, “I began research on this book a year ago. I conducted multiple interviews with people he interacted with — party colleagues and leaders from across the political spectrum. However, I discovered a treasure trove of information about Rao and his views on policy, when his family gave me access to his papers. He maintained a dairy and made a note of everything. I wanted to write a book that gave him his due. I have tried to take steps to ensure that it is not a hagiography. I have included the positive and negative aspects of his character in the book.”
He adds, “Rao was a man with no charisma, loathed by most leaders in his party, leading a minority government and constantly under the shadow of 10 Janpath. However, with the skill of a shrewd politician, he managed to push through major economic reforms that were opposed by everyone. He knew when to win, when to deceive and when to lose to achieve what he wanted.” Narrating an anecdote, Sitapthi said, “In the early 80s, when Rajiv Gandhi wanted to ease him out of the union government, he decided to learn more about computers and hired a teacher. He picked up three programming languages and could write code in UNIX.”
Historian Ramachandra Guha argued that Rao was one of the most transformative leaders of the 20th Century and has been written out of history books. “He had friends across the political spectrum and was a skilled politician.
He was one of the mainstays of the liberalisation process.
However, he added, “Rao lacked the mandate or the popularity that many other leaders of the 20th Century had. He became a master of masking change as continuity. He would dismantle the economic systems built by Nehru-Gandhis while providing lip service to the first family of the Congress. The Congress has let the BJP appropriate key figures like Sardar Patel, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Narashima Rao.”
Guha warned, “We mustn’t go to the other extreme of elevating Rao too much. His economic and foreign policy initiatives worked because of his methods but also because of the times we lived in. Our psyche is that we elevate people excessively or pull them down entirely.”
Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani said, “Rao was someone who liked to tinker with things. Infosys was one of the first companies to benefit from liberalization, which allowed them to use free market pricing for their IPO, approach foreign investors for funds and travel abroad easily. He ensured that the bureaucratic red tape was abolished.”