P.V. Narasimha Rao, the subversive insider

This personality trait subverted his own place in the consciousness of the new India that he helped shape

Updated - February 09, 2024 01:56 pm IST

Published - June 29, 2020 12:15 am IST

P.V. Narasimha Rao, who would have turned 99 on Sunday, was, arguably, the first accidental Prime Minister of India. He was also an accidental Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh. Very few, if any, foresaw Rao to be Prime Minister in 1991. No one had expected him to become the Chief Minister of his State about two decades before that. Once in office, on both occasions, Rao brought in reforms that fundamentally changed the destiny of Andhra Pradesh and India. Rao was essentially a mute rebel, intensely uncomfortable with the socio-economic ethos around him. The rebel in him was not in enough measure to make him an outsider, but was sufficient to mount an intellectual challenge from the inside. A combination of his discomfort with the status quo and his unwillingness to roll up his sleeves for an open fight turned him into a subversive insider.

In both his roles as Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh and Prime Minister, he subverted the very structures that he was a definite yet uneasy beneficiary of. More than anything else subversion defines his long, successful but unspectacular political career. Temperamentally he preferred to avoid open fights. His inclination was for negotiation, compromise or, at best, a crafty rearguard action. This perhaps enabled him to occupy strategic positions and carry out his project, but surely left him with no passionate following or a die-hard political constituency that owns him. In the event, this personality trait subverted his own place in the popular mind of India.

Also read | Questions about Narasimha Rao 

As Chief Minister, he dismantled the political and economic power of the large feudal land-owning class, but without any grandstanding. He did not try to portray his measures as an all-out assault on the archaic structures of economic and social control. But they indeed were. His land reforms gradually squeezed the surplus capital out of the rural economy. That capital made its way into trade, industry and urban areas. The economic landscape of Andhra Pradesh was never the same again. This was an unlikely subversion because Rao was a member of that very land-owning class.

The 1991 economic project

His political rise owed much to the decline of regional satraps in the Congress system, the rise of its ‘high-command culture’ and the consolidation of the ‘socialistic pattern of society’ as its creed. However, as Prime Minister and Congress President, Rao defanged that arrogant culture and obliterated its socialist creed. His liberalisation-privatisation-globalisation programme unleashed economic and social forces that changed India beyond recognition from what it was until then. The policy departures under his watch hurtled India into a different and hitherto unfamiliar political economy. Rather than describing it as an attempt to upend the Nehruvian legacy, he laboured to portray it as a continuation of Jawaharlal Nahru’s vision and Rajiv Gandhi’s dream — another characteristic subversive manoeuvre, not a frontal attack. The economic paradigm that he introduced then remains unchallenged even today. Since he left office, every major political formation in the country participated in successive Central governments or supported them from outside. But none could overturn the fundamentals of his 1991 economic project. Rao’s subversion of Nehruvian economic doctrine is irreversible.

He disagreed with the imposition of Emergency but was reluctant to break ranks and openly defy his party high-command. He made peace with the rebel in him without ceasing to be an insider. He took the help of his friend Nikhil Chakravarthy to vent his dissent. He published a series of articles in Mainstream under the pseudonym ‘A Congressman’. Again, the subversive insider in him answered the call of his conscience by mounting an intellectual challenge to Emergency. His passion for democratic values was evident during the days when the Bharatiya Janata Party was battling ‘political untouchability’. Rao declared that BJP leaders too were elected to Parliament by the same political process as he and others in the Congress were and, therefore, one had to do business with them. That view was no less than blasphemy in the Congress of those days. 

Also read | Playing the lion and mouse game 

Shaping a new India

Rao learnt to keep quiet in about a dozen languages. He never claimed credit for his successes in the Punjab, Assam, Kashmir, and for dousing the fires of the Mandal agitation. He did not effectively defend himself when accused of inaction during the Ayodhya episode. He did not cultivate a regional, caste, ideological constituency. Nor did he cultivate a personal following. He stayed away from patron-client politics. Rejecting him, therefore, is no slight to any region, caste, or an ideological constituency. His party could easily disown him without fear of backlash. Today, no group owns or claims him as its own. Celebrating his achievements has no rewards; denouncing him has no punishment; ignoring him has no penalty. There is no one to celebrate his achievements in life; no one to bemoan his humiliation in death; no one to make a spirited demand for awarding the Bharat Ratna to him. Perhaps his subversive streak did not spare his own legacy. The Telangana government has begun celebrating his birth centenary on a grand scale. One hopes that its efforts would reclaim Rao’s rightful place in the popular consciousness of the new India that he helped shape.


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