PV Narasimha Rao: The Dark Knight Of Indian Politics
I was born on 24th January 1993 in Solapur, Maharashtra. About 400 km away from Solapur, the state’s capital Mumbai or Bombay as it was known back then was slowly recovering from the worst ever communal clashes since independence. The reason for such wide scale rioting was the demolition of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya on December 6th 1992, a couple of weeks back. The Congress Party which was in power at the centre at that time along with a few other parties knew that they had found a scapegoat to be blamed for everything. This scapegoat was disowned by the Congress Party and was insulted even after death. However, let me pause for a while and quote something.
The demon king Hiranyakashipu performs penance to achieve immortality. He is granted a boon that he will die neither on earth nor in space, neither in the day nor night, neither at home nor outside-neither by a human nor animal. Confident of cheating death by this clever device, the demon starts believing he is God and unleashes terror.
His devout son Prahlada continues to worship Lord Vishnu as all pervasive. Enraged, Hiranyakashipu points to a pillar and mockingly asks if Vishnu is present within. He shatters the pillar with his mace. Out of the shards emerges Narasimha, an incarnation of Vishnu. Narasimha-half-man, half-lion-kills Hiranyakashipu.
The time is twilight, the place is courtyard, and Hiranyakashipu is killed on Narasimha’s lap, neither earth nor space. The ambiguities and contradictions of Narasimha, half-lion are precisely why he is able to slay the demon.
This is a story from the Bhagwata Purana and is taken exactly as it appears from the first page of Vinay Sitapati’s masterpiece Half Lion: How PV Narasimha Rao Transformed India. PV Narasimha Rao, one who started out as a socialist, became an Indira Gandhi loyalist, a virtual puppet CM of Andhra Pradesh in her hands, was thrown out later, became a misfit in the cabinet of Indira’s son Rajiv’s cabinet, twice was overlooked for the post of the President, but ended up being the Prime Minister of India in 1991, leading a minority government and changed the face of India forever.
Lal Bahadur Shastri, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and PV Narasimha Rao are the Prime Ministers of India whom I respect the most. However, Shastri and Vajpayee both were highly popular leaders as is Modi in the present day context. Both Shastri and Vajpayee had the ability to connect with the people and nobody could oppose them. Both of them were highly charismatic as is Modi today. But that was not the case with Rao. The Congress leader Jairam Ramesh described Rao as someone having the charisma of a “dead fish”.
Rao was not a popularly elected PM. There were several competitors for the post of PM when he was chosen. He was the first PM outside the Hindi belt and the first one from the South. To this date, Rao and HD Deve Gowda have been the only two PM’s from the South. However, the way Rao turned things around for India is nothing short of extraordinary.
When Rao became the PM in 1991, the Indian economy was in shambles (1991 Indian economic crisis). This was the worst economic crisis post independence. India’s main ally, the Soviet Union or the USSR was in a state of collapse. Kashmir, Assam, and Punjab, three Indian states were caught in a terrible state of insurgency. The LTTE had just assassinated the man who would have been the PM. The middle class population was only 30 million. Flying was very expensive and there was only one option, the Indian Airlines. There were only 5 million people having access to telephone. There was only one channel on TV which was Doordarshan.
In 5 years, Rao had changed the face of India and he did this by leading a minority government. The current Modi government literally has no opposition as such but Rao had to deal with two separate oppositions which belonged to the opposite ends of the political spectrum in the Parliament, the United Front led by VP Singh and the BJP. On top of all this, he had to deal with his own party which was strictly against economic reforms. The Congress was still in the era of Nehruvian and Indira’s socialism. Had that continued, the Indian economy would have totally collapsed.
The fact that Rao was able to emerge as the winner on all the three fronts is unbelievable. As soon as he took oath, he knew that socialism wasn’t going to work out. He had been a socialist himself but he knew that the age of socialism was over. He immediately got Dr. Manmohan Singh, who was already an eminent economist and a former governor of the RBI and made him the Finance Minister. He also appointed Dr. Subramanian Swamy as the Chairman of the Commission on Labour Standards and International Trade. This has been the only instance that an Opposition Party member was given a Cabinet rank post by the ruling party.
He also sent Opposition leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee to represent India in a UN meeting at Geneva. People say that Rao had more trust in Vajpayee than he had in his own party members. In 1991, the government had to pledge tonnes of gold to the IMF to get a loan. The IMF was very reluctant to grant the loan to India since it did not believe that India would be able to repay it. Gold occupies a symbolic status in India and this move of the Rao government was severely criticised.
Rao, Singh, Swamy, and team were able to bring about Economic liberalisation in India. By 1996, India was growing at a 7.5 percent rate. Insurgents in Punjab and Assam had been either neutralised or won over. Today, the Indian middle class constitutes 30% of the total population. There are 832 TV channels and air travel has become very affordable. There are 2 billion phone subscribers in India. 18 years after India took the loan from the IMF by pledging its gold, it was able to buy 200 metric tons of gold, three times what it had pawned earlier.
I am writing this post on an American website, using an American laptop, which has been manufactured in China. I am listening to songs from an American based, China made flagship phone, and using a private Indian company’s Internet. Had it not been for PVN Rao, I would never have got any of these luxuries. Airtel would not have come into picture. I would not have been able to use a Dell laptop and listen to songs from Apple’s iPhone.
Rao’s tenure was simply revolutionary and it is very sad that instead of his achievements being celebrated, he has been made the scapegoat for numerous issues such as the riots following the demolition of Babri Masjid. The Congress has disowned him. The left parties and left leaning intellectuals love to bash him on various forums. The first chapter in the book Half Lion will really make anyone sad. The Congress did not allow Rao’s funeral to be held in Delhi despite numerous requests from Rao’s family. Whenever a senior member of the Congress party passes away, it is a custom to have his body in the party headquarters so that all the party workers can catch that one last glimpse. When Rao died, the gates of the Congress headquarters were closed. His body wasn’t allowed to be taken into the headquarters.
The Congress was in power from 2004 to 2014 at the centre and as well as in Rao’s home state of Andhra Pradesh (Telangana has been formed now. Rao is actually from Telangana but back then the state of Andhra Pradesh hadn’t been divided yet. However, the decision to divide the state had already been taken). No memorial was built in his honour. His birthday was never celebrated officially. The birthday celebrations would be a private affair and only one Congress leader would attend them regularly, who was none other than the then PM and a lifelong Rao loyalist, Dr Manmohan Singh. Manmohan Singh had tried to convince the Congress of having Rao’s funeral in Delhi itself but it was of no use. Congress party workers are not taught about Rao.
Rao’s neglect can be best described the speech of Sonia Gandhi on the occasion of the celebration of 125 years of the Congress Party.
Sonia Gandhi praised contributions of all Congress prime ministers except P V Narasimha Rao in her speech … Making no mention of Rao in her 15-minute speech, she said Rajiv Gandhi scripted the course of economic policies that were followed by the government (headed by Rao) for the following five years.
The left leaning politicians and intellectuals have aided the Congress in bashing Rao. They blame Rao for “pro rich policies”. For the Communists, communalism and capitalism are both the same and they love bashing Rao and don’t miss an opportunity to blame him.
Rao was the PM when I was born, way back in 1993. I was too young to understand politics when he left office in 1996. I got the maturity to understand politics in 1999. By that time, Deve Gowda and Gujral had come and gone. I grew up when Vajpayee government was in power. We didn’t have cable back then so I knew what has happening in the country through newspapers and DD News.
It was wonderful to witness Vajpayee leading the country. His speeches were phenomenal and I genuinely felt happy that such a great individual was the PM. When the NDA lost in 2004, I was shocked. Dr. Manmohan Singh became the PM and I read about him and found him to be a great economist. UPA-I was ok, not too bad. But UPA-II was pathetic and there is absolutely no doubt about that. Now, PM Modi is doing a good job and I admire him a lot. I hope that he follows in the footsteps of Shastri, Rao, and Vajpayee.
I was not born when Shastri was the PM, was an infant when Rao was the PM, but witnessed Vajpayee taking India to the next level. These three PMs in addition to Prime Minister Modi are the ones whom I respect the most and out of the lot, I feel that Rao was The Dark Knight of Indian politics. He is that unsung hero who has been forgotten by many people. And unlike Shastri, Vajpayee, and Modi he wasn’t a popular or an undisputed leader during his term as the PM. But despite all the difficulties he faced, Pamulaparti Venkata Narasimha Rao, the man who was very fluent in many languages including his mother tongue Telugu, Marathi, Hindi, English, Tamil, Urdu, Kannada, Oriya, Sanskrit, French, and Spanish transformed India. He knew in total, 17 different languages. A great personality who probably deserved more recognition from the political class.