Book Review by U Mahesh Prabhu
Pamulaparti Venkata Narasimha Rao, popularly known in political circles as PV, was an unusual politician who came to power as India’s 10th prime minister after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. A few months before his assassination, Rajiv had asked PV to retire from active electoral politics and seek a birth in Rajya Sabha – India’s upper house of parliament. PV had agreed. He also contemplated sanyasa. He was chosen by Sonia Gandhi to be prime minister exclusively because he was powerless (without any significant national voter base) and old (aged 70). His party opponents, Sharad Pawar as well as the late Arjun Singh, had assumed that he’d be gone sooner than imagined.
It’s important to know that PV came to power at a time when India’s economy was at its historical low and had serious Balance of Payment (BoP) issues. Years of political correctnesse and shameless vote bank politics had reduced the national exchequer to the worst possible level. The Indian economy was on the verge of collapse! The nation also faced severe militancy issues in Kashmir, Punjab and Assam. Suffice it to say, Rao didn’t inherit a bed a roses; it was a throne of thorns.
Yet, with a party virtually broken by internal strife, PV took the challenges with unusual diplomatic skill and won most, if not all, of the challenges. He hired a technocrat and former World Bank economist Dr Manmohan Singh to fix the economy as finance minister. “If you succeed, we’ll take the credit; if you lose, you’ll have to leave,” PV is believed to have told Singh. The bet on Singh proved successful. But then it wasn’t Singh alone who was responsible for economic accomplishments at the time. PV was extremely careful to first sell the economic liberalisation agenda by heralding the visions of the Congress party’s late patriarchs Nehru-Indira-Rajiv. He would silence the communists by the providing excuse of enriching the poor and mute Hindutva proponents with a Sanskrit hymn to support his argument. By 1992, India’s economy was back on track and Rao decided to take it to the next level.
He was verily, as his successor and former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had called, ‘the father of India’s nuclear weapons programme’. If not for PV, Vajpayee wouldn’t have succeeded in the 1996 Pokhran tests, thereby marking India’s entry into the nuclear club. Yes, Indira did have her share in the nuclear blasts. But India didn’t have the technology to deliver the nuclear weapon to their enemy. The Missile development programme was possible owing to PV’s vision, statesmanship and political astuteness.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, India had more troubles on its hands. From a bipolar to uni-polar world, there were so many things the country needed to achieve in order to sustain its national sovereignty. While Americans, under the leadership of President Bill Clinton, were pushing India to sign the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) and then Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), Pakistan was being handsomely rewarded with ready-to-use nuclear weapon technology by China, which was already in the privileged nuclear club. Yet, if India succeeded in building nuclear weapon and missile technology, all by itself, it was owing to this late statesman.
It’s indeed a travesty that his own party chose to disown his son after the 1996 general election where his party lost not so miserably compared to 2014. There were cries by his party members for him to step down from the party presidency. He heeded even though his well-wishers warned him that his party would turn on him if he stepped down. As he had expected, soon after the resignation, all hell broke loose. He was muddied with a series of court cases. If sources are to be believed, he was almost set to sell his house in Hyderabad to pay for legal counsels.
When he died, the party leaders’ behaviour was unbecoming, to say the least. While his family wanted a dignified burial in New Delhi – his karmabhoomi – his body was virtually forced to Hyderabad where the dead body was apparently claimed to have been left half burnt. Persistent requests by his family for a national memorial in his honour were quietly turned down. If not for two of India’s prime ministers from his “rival” faction, the Bharatiya Janata Party, PV’s legacy would have been reduced to gossip or, worse, forgotten.
A fitting tribute to PV’s legacy is Vinay Sitapati’s book, Half Lion: How P V Narasimha Rao Transformed India. Written with meticulous attention to detail, painstaking research of PV’s personal archives as well as after interviewing a number of his colleagues, Sitapati has given PV a colossal tribute. Sitapati has also taken great pain to absolve PV of several allegations that have been used to tarnish his image. This book is a must for all Indians who take pride in their present and want to know about the person who made it all happen.
As Sitapati rightly points out, “Narasimha Rao’s legacy also manifests in the everyday lives of most Indians. Real incomes of Indians across percentiles have increased. Most families – no matter how poor, how marginalised – are better off than they were before Narasimha Rao. Every time an Indian gives a missed call using her mobile phone, she has Rao to thank. The boom in private India, from corporate jobs to private airlines and toll roads, was possible largely because of Rao. The increase in social-sector schemes, from employment guarantee to better-targeted food subsidies, exemplified Rao’s vision (and warts), while incorporating the new technology developed since then. Even the way Indian think of politics has changed, with voters now demanding service and performance rather than just being content with patronage.”